Solution for North County Sludge Woes Not Regional

Times Staff Writer

A two-year effort to find a site for a North County sludge composting facility was abandoned Wednesday, leaving the public agencies involved to seek their own solutions to the mounting problem of what to do with the unwanted, solid byproducts of sewage.

The Encina Water Pollution Control Facility board voted unanimously to dash its plans for a regional solution and opted instead for a composting site within the district's boundaries, which encompass the cities of Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos, part of Encinitas and unincorporated areas stretching east to Interstate 15.

The primary obstacle, however, will be finding a place for the $17-million facility. Several rural locations were considered for a regional facility last year, but residents in most of the surrounding neighborhoods protested the potential for foul odors, increased truck traffic and possible tainting of ground water.

Each of the sites was eventually deemed unsuitable for a variety of reasons, including lack of access roads, rugged terrain and insurmountable financial red tape.

Composting Process

The composting process involves squeezing the moisture out of sewage to create sludge, then mixing the sludge with sawdust and feeding the mixture into a composter. Once inside, the mixture gradually heats up to about 150 degrees and undergoes a biological breakdown that results in a finished product similar to peat moss. Both Oceanside and the Encina district plan enclosed facilities, which would minimize odor.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the city of Oceanside last month decided to compost its own sludge. Earlier this week a delegation from Oceanside toured a composting facility in Hamilton, Ohio, and returned full of enthusiasm for a similar project, according to water utilities director Barry Martin.

"Right now, we're spending $500,000 a year to truck our sludge to the Otay Mesa landfill . . . and we've been told that, in 1992, they'll close the doors of the landfill to us," Martin said. Composting the sludge will create a usable fertilizer and soil supplement. The city could one day profit from its unwanted sewage if the market proves worthy, Martin said.

Double Purpose

Oceanside hopes to build a plant on a 39-acre plot next to the existing San Luis Rey Wastewater Treatment Plant. The plant will occupy about 10 acres, and the rest of the parcel will be converted into a wildlife conservancy, Martin said.

The composted material and the leftover usable waste water will be used to landscape and irrigate the conservancy. "It will be exciting if we can recycle the compost and water back into the environment," said Martin. "That's the right way to do things."

Escondido, formerly included in the regional search, has not yet taken steps to find its own sludge solution. City officials, in fact, were unaware Wednesday that a regional approach had been abandoned.

"I really think we should, if we can, stick together," said Escondido utilities manager George Lohnes. "I think a proliferation of these plants around the county won't do any good. . . . But, if we don't have a choice, we will start looking for a site."

Encina is now considering three sites within its district, focusing on a 78-acre parcel owned by San Diego Gas & Electric. The site, on Questhaven Road near the San Marcos landfill, is being used for SDG&E;'s mulching operation.

Jay Shepard, SDG&E; land management supervisor, said the utility is aware of Encina's interest but plans to maximize its profit on the land, which could mean selling to developers instead.

Another site under consideration is 30 acres on Hidden Valley Road, north of Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad. The property is owned by the Carltas Co., a subsidiary of the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch, and is being used for flower fields.

John White, Carltas associate manager, said Wednesday that he was unaware that Encina was considering the company's property. "We do have a master plan (for that property) but it certainly doesn't include a sludge composting plant right now," White said. Carltas plans to keep 345 acres of the 560-acre ranch for agricultural uses and develop commercial office space on the rest, White said.

The third site, not far from the Carltas property, consists of 39 acres at the west end of Faraday Avenue, in an area designated for the Carlsbad Research Center.

Encina officials said the agency will use the power of eminent domain to condemn and acquire a site if necessary.

In San Diego County, only the Fallbrook Sanitary District is now disposing of its sludge through a composting program, which has successfully operated for more than a year. The city of San Diego will begin experimental composting on Fiesta Island at the end of September, according to Dan Child of the city's Water Utilities Department.

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