City fined $70K for spill in October

City officials won’t appeal the fine assessed by state regulators for the Oct. 29 spill that spewed more than 590,000 gallons of sewage onto Woods Cove beaches.

The state Regional Water Quality Control Board San Diego Region notified the city this week that a fine of $70,000 would be imposed, much lower than a maximum that could have been levied. Unless appealed it is a done deal city officials said.

“There is nothing to stop a council member from appealing, but I would advise against it,” City Manager Ken Frank said. “The amount is relatively small and fair, given the state budget.”

The spill bill could have been set much higher — a crippling maximum of $5.9 million. The relatively small financial penalty is an implicit recognition of the city’s aggressive efforts to renovate the sewer collection system and substantial improvements already completed, according to Frank.


“We have spent about $16 million over the last six or seven years on capital improvements to the system,” city Water Quality Director David Shissler said.

A major overhaul of the Bluebird Canyon Lift Station currently underway alone is expected to cost about $1.8 million when completed. The work, which has been plagued by mishaps and the unforeseen complications to be expected in an aging facility, is estimated by Shissler to be completed by mid-October.

Plans were on the drawing board for the renovation when a malfunction last October spewed about 590,000 gallons of sewage into the ocean before frantically working crews could stem the flow.

The spill resulted in the fine recently announced.


Occasionally the board has allowed a portion of a big fine to be used on projects, but not in this case.

“While we would have preferred to retain that money for further sewer improvements in Laguna Beach, we recognize that the amount of the fine is reasonable and necessary under current regulations, Frank said.

Of the $70,000, $10,000 is an automatic fine and $20,000 is repayment for the cost of the board’s investigation, almost half of the levy.

“The rest goes to the state,” Frank said.

Clean Water Now! founder Roger Butow said Frank was able to reduce a $240,000 fine imposed by the board in June 2000 to $60,000. His group supported the $240,000 fine in the belief that deterrence drives compliance, according to Butow.

Butow also announced that the group will not appeal the current fine.

Frank said that rather than contest the fine, the city will continue its aggressive efforts to extensively retrofit the city’s sewer system, which has included capital improvements to replace or reline deteriorated sewer mains, reconstruct pump stations, and install emergency generators for backup power — improvements that have sharply reduced the frequency of sewer spills in Laguna Beach.