In the latest attempt to help solve a decades-old problem, a bill before Congress would allow San Diego to continue to treat sewage with chemicals, rather than the more expensive biological treatment, to meet federal requirements.
The proposal would save San Diego taxpayers $2.8 billion, according to its sponsor, U.S Rep. Jim Bates, D-San Diego. But city officials said the savings would be a fraction of that.
The city's Point Loma sewage-treatment plant does not meet 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act standards, and, after a lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Agency, the city agreed to overhaul its system, including upgrading to secondary sewage treatment.
The overhaul would include conversion of the Point Loma plant, construction of a secondary sewage treatment plant in South Bay, water reclamation facilities, ocean outfalls and sludge processing facilities. All of the projects would cost about $2.4 billion, according to Robin Spear, a spokeswoman for the city clean water program. Construction of a new plant and conversion of the Point Loma facility to secondary treatment, which would be affected by the Bates bill, accounts for only 35% of the cost of the projects, or $840 million.
In addition, Spear said, although chemical treatment might be less expensive, the city still would have to convert the Point Loma plant to secondary treatment, making the savings substantially less than $840 million. According to a release from Bates, chemical treatment can be implemented immediatedly in primary treatment plants, eliminating the expense of conversion to secondary treatment.
Walter Konopka, senior chemist at the Point Loma plant, said that secondary treatment levels require that about 90% of solid wastes be removed before entering the ocean.
Both the biological treatment and the chemical process, which uses ferric chloride, would be able to match that, he said, but there are questions about the ability of the chemical process to satisfy other requirements. Chemicals are now used by the Point Loma facility for its advanced primary treatment of sewage.
The use of the chemicals would not harm the environment, he said.
Lois Grunwald, an EPA spokeswoman with the regional office in San Francisco, said that office does not yet know what the bill entails or how the agency will view it.