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Less Sewage Treatment Has Bigger Price Tag

A waiver that allows Orange County to give less thorough treatment to sewage being dumped into the ocean than the federal Clean Water Act requires will expire next year. Between now and then, directors of the County Sanitation Districts of Orange County must decide whether to seek another five-year waiver or go to the expense of removing more waste material to improve the water quality.

A staff report recommends seeking another waiver of the federal standards that would require secondary treatment to remove close to 90% of solid material from waste water. The report says that the water environment is being adequately protected and that the cost of secondary treatment, about $1.4 billion in additional sewer fees over the next 30 years, or about $25 per household per year, need not be spent.

District officials also contend that full secondary treatment would produce more sludge that would have to be trucked to a landfill.

Environmentalists, surfers and other residents concerned about the water quality who oppose another waiver want more thorough water treatment. They see the $25 annual increase in their sanitation bill as a small price to pay for reducing the toxic materials in the ocean. Their logic, arithmetic and commitment to preserving the environment makes sense.

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The San Diego City Council faced a similar decision more than two years ago. It went against similar advice from its consultants and staff and voted 7 to 1 to go to secondary treatment. Orange County should do the same, instead of delaying the cleanup until the water quality deteriorates, as it has in other areas.

Although the district maintains that the marine environment at the end of the outfall line is not being damaged, it does admit that the ecosystem is being changed. And it offers no proof positive that the changes will not be detrimental as the volume of solids being dumped into the ocean increase. That is one of the major reasons an environmental group such as the Sierra Club opposes the waiver and strongly advocates adoption of secondary treatment.

It makes more sense to adopt the secondary treatment now before water quality deteriorates perceptibly and while the costs of that treatment are less than they will be years from now.

Disposing of sludge may be a problem, but it is one that other regions are exploring and solving, along with reducing the amount of solids at their source.

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One of the sanitation district’s responsibilities is to protect the quality of the ocean off the county coastline. That may become increasingly difficult to do considering that the amount of oxygen-depleting effluent that the district dumps into the ocean, which now totals about 250 million gallons each day, will increase dramatically along with the county’s continued development and population growth. So, too, may the negative effects at the end of the sewage line.

It is worth an average of $25 more per household per year to remove more solids from the waste water being dumped offshore to protect Orange County’s coastal waters from the pollution that growth has already inflicted on the county’s land and air quality.


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