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Henderson, Scientists Say Sewer-Upgrading Plan Is Not Needed

Times Staff Writer

San Diego City Councilman Bruce Henderson, seeking to reopen the debate on the need for a proposed $4-billion sewer improvement project, said Tuesday that scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography agree with him that the discharge of sewage into the ocean causes no significant problems.

With the azure skies above the Scripps Pier as his backdrop, Henderson urged San Diegans to show up in force this morning as a council committee considers a plan to more than double the average consumer’s sewer fees to pay for the federally mandated upgrading.

Even though other council members say there is little chance of his winning their support, Henderson wants the council once again to try to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency to change its mind about the upgrading. If that fails, he wants to lobby Congress to change the Clean Water Act or to get a judge to overrule it.

Gargantuan Increases

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“There has been a simply incredible divergence between scientific reality and public policy,” Henderson said at the pier press conference. “That’s going to result in Gargantuan increases in sewage rates on top of increases in water rates.

“We need to put this money, if we’re going to collect it from the ratepayer, into projects like protecting the Tijuana estuary and stopping spills into our bays. We can’t afford to be spending a rare commodity, public taxpayers’ dollars, on a project that is scientifically unnecessary,” he said.

The lineup Henderson assembled on the pier backed him up.

Jeffrey Frautschy, who retired in 1982 as deputy director of Scripps, said: “Most of us here feel that going to secondary treatment is a total waste of funds that could be used more effectively in solving real environmental problems, such as improving and expanding the capacity of the sewage conveyance system of San Diego.”

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Frautschy has served on varied state and local panels on coastal issues.

Paul Dayton, a Scripps professor and marine ecologist, said his studies of plants and animals in the kelp bed off Point Loma show no negative effects from the current sewage discharges off Point Loma.

“I’ve been working on the coastal ecology in this vicinity for 20-some years,” he said. “If there were an effect, I think we’d all rise up and complain about it.

“But, when you look at $4 billion, that’s a staggering amount of money for what is an utterly trivial, non-problem. It’s a monumental waste of important funds.”

Might Even Help

William Thomas, a professor emeritus at Scripps, said his studies have found that the treated effluent pours nutrients into the ocean that, if anything, improve the ocean environment by increasing biological productivity in an area within about a mile of the outfall.

Not in attendance, but also lending support for Henderson via letters were Edward D. Goldberg, a Scripps marine chemist who won the prestigious Tyler Prize for environmental achievement this year, and Roger Revelle, director emeritus of Scripps.

At issue is the EPA’s enforcement of provisions of the Clean Water Act, which the city had fought but finally agreed to in 1987. The act limits the amount of solids allowed in effluent that is piped into the ocean.

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San Diego now uses “advanced primary” sewage treatment, which removes 75% of the solids, before discharging the effluent about 2 1/2 miles off Point Loma. Under the EPA order to which the city has agreed, the city would adopt secondary treatment measures to increase the amount to 85% to 90%.

The scientists at Tuesday’s press conference said this blanket requirement unnecessarily applies an inland, freshwater standard to a marine environment that is larger and more resilient than a river system. They suggested that this reflects the need not for environmental protection but for bureaucratic expediency.

The whole idea of secondary sewage treatment for coastal communities was ridiculed by scientists in 1977, when they told Congress at hearings on the Clean Water Act that it was not necessary. One of them, the late John D. Isaacs of Scripps, said requiring cities to build pyramids would make more sense because pyramids would at least be pretty. Nonetheless, the requirements made it into the law.

In early 1981, the city abandoned plans for a secondary system required by the law, because it wrongfully believed that the EPA would give it a permanent exemption from the federal sewage standards. In 1986, the EPA indicated that it would deny the waiver, and in 1987 the city gave up fighting for one.

Seeking Fines

Even so, federal and state governments have sued the city over how quickly the new system will be installed. They are seeking fines that could cost the city millions of dollars for past sewage spills into the ocean and local waterways.

The upgraded sewage treatment for the 190 million gallons of effluent released each day off Point Loma could end up costing San Diego sewer ratepayers as much as $4.2 billion, under plans being considered.

Sewer rates would more than double by July 1990, from an average today of $13.52 monthly to $29.22. The first step of the increase would take effect July 1 this year, raising the average rate to $19.87.

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The council’s Public Facilities and Recreation Committee will consider the sewer rate increases at 9 a.m. today in the 12th-floor committee room at City Hall.


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