Fine for Massive Sewage Spill Struck Down

Times Staff Writer

Thousand Oaks won another round in its lengthy battle against state water quality officials when a judge again struck down a multimillion-dollar fine imposed against the city for a pipe rupture that spilled 86 million gallons of raw sewage during El Nino storms five years ago.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge, siding with the city a third time, said last week that the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board had ignored her earlier order in support of Thousand Oaks. The board had continued to levy a huge fine for the Feb. 3, 1998, spill, which fouled creeks and the ocean and forced closure of 29 miles of beaches.

"We felt all along that the city did not deserve a substantial fine because of this washout," City Atty. Mark Sellers said. Thousand Oaks spent more than $500,000 on programs to aid the local ecosystem after the spill, and while city officials acknowledge that the accident deserves some fine, "the water board has done nothing but try to punish the city," Sellers said.

Judge Dzintra Janavs first ruled in December 2001 to invalidate the board's original $2.3-million fine against Thousand Oaks, agreeing with the city's contention that the severity of that winter's storms created a natural disaster that led to the sewer line break near the city's Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Repairs at the plant, built in 1959, had been discussed for years and were scheduled to begin in the summer of 1998. The city since has spent $23.5 million to replace the pipeline, one part of an ongoing $100-million overhaul of the sewage facility that began after the spill.

After the water quality board delayed reducing its fine, the city filed a contempt-of-court motion against the state agency. Last July, the judge concurred and fined the water board $1,000.

The board reconsidered the matter in October 2002 but only reduced its original fine by about $200,000, and Thousand Oaks again took the matter to court. Janavs on Feb. 25 invalidated the new fine, again instructed the board to reconsider its decision and awarded the city a portion of its attorney fees, which Sellers estimates will be at least $50,000.

That is a fraction, however, of the nearly $1 million the city has spent so far dealing with the water quality control board's enforcement actions and an FBI investigation into the accident, Sellers said.

"It's truly unfortunate that this has dragged out as long as it has," said Councilman Dennis Gillette, the council's representative in dealing with the state agency. "The board has been slow to respond to the court and has not dealt with this issue in a good-faith manner to bring this to conclusion."

Calling the fines -- the highest in the local water quality board's history -- "unrealistic and unfair," Gillette said the agency seems to want to make an example of Thousand Oaks to other cities.

But Dennis Dickerson, executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Thousand Oaks once faced penalties of up to $10 for each gallon spilled, and was fined less than 1% of that amount.

"The board, after careful deliberation, based its decision not on speculation, but on hard evidence about the 86-million-gallon spill," he said. "The city's liability was clearly proven. They knew [the sewer pipe] was going to break and didn't do enough to prevent it."

Considering that the spill was the largest ever for the local water board, that it caused substantial environmental damage and produced an economic loss because beaches were closed for several weeks, "the board exercised its authority appropriately," Dickerson said.

The nine-member board is scheduled to have a closed-session discussion of the issue March 13 and decide whether to appeal Janavs' latest ruling.

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