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State may fine sanitary district more than $500,000 over sewage spills

State authorities have fined the Costa Mesa Sanitary District more than $500,000 in connection with two sewage spills that released tens of thousands of gallons of raw materials into Upper Newport Bay.

In a 4 1/2-hour hearing Friday afternoon in Irvine, prosecutors from the State Water Resources Control Board's Santa Ana Region alleged that the district failed to address and prevent spills that occurred in Newport Beach in 2013 and on Jan. 1, 2015 — both of which discharged an estimated 85,100 gallons of untreated sewage.

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They contended that the district failed to uphold industry standards and undergo sufficient preventive maintenance measures.

Sanitary district officials were quick to acknowledge fault in both incidents, but countered that the recommended $503,214 fine, issued April 30, is disproportionately high compared to other penalties issued throughout the state and should be less than half that: $204,995.

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District officials also contended that, while sewage spills are clearly bad for the bay, no long-term "acute and chronic" environmental effects connected to the spills have been recorded or proven.

The regularly scheduled monitoring of the Back Bay waters after the spill fell within state standards, the district contended.

"We are not negligent, and we are not bad actors," said district counsel Alan Burns. "It's easy to say after a spill has occurred that you should have done more … it's quite another thing to manage a sewer system, with a budget, in real time."

Prosecutors said around 9 a.m. on Aug. 31, 2013, a resident on Anniversary Lane, near the Back Bay, reported a sewage leak.

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Newport city staff responded and discovered that a Costa Mesa Sanitary District pump station, near Irvine Avenue and Mesa Drive, had failed and was leaking untreated sewage into the Santa Ana-Delhi Channel, which runs into the Back Bay.

By noon, crews had fixed the station. Officials later surmised that the problem was escalated by a Southern California Edison power surge that disrupted the station's monitoring system.

"That's a significant issue to us," said Stephen Mayville, the Santa Ana region's chief of enforcement.

Prosecutors did note that 2,000 gallons of sewage were retrieved, but the vast majority, 77,000 gallons, made it into the bay. County health officials closed off portions of the area for about two days afterward.

Prosecutors and environmentalists contended that the August closure caused significant economic impacts on area businesses that were relying on the "dream weekend" Labor Day crowds using the bay.

"This was not a rainy Labor Day," said Colin Kelly, an attorney with Orange County Coastkeeper, which testified against the district. "This was a perfect Labor Day, except for the sewage."

The second incident, on New Year's Day 2015, was first reported at 11:45 a.m. Newport officials discovered sewage seeping out a manhole within the Fairway Villas apartment complex at 20122 Santa Ana Ave.

The city contacted C&R Drains — a contractor the district pays to handle after-hours sewage emergencies — though prosecutors say C&R failed to show up.

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Responders managed to fix the sewage block by 2:49 p.m. County health officials closed off area beaches through Jan. 4.

Prosecutors blamed the sanitary district for failing to maintain the area's line, called Indus. They contended that Indus has been a known problem since 1999 and that the district failed to adequately address it by conducting maintenance measures only twice a year.

District officials responded that the Indus line has not had any sewage leaks in eight years.

"We did the best we could with [the twice-yearly] increased cleaning," said Robin Hamers, district engineer.

Scott Carroll, the district's general manager since 2010, noted that while businesses were likely affected by the spills, none of them have submitted damages claims.

Furthermore, the Back Bay, Carroll said, while certainly a "jewel of the region," is not "pristine" water meant for swimming. It contains many other pollutants, he said, such as traces of copper coming from the paint of boats.

He pointed to the district's comprehensive system of preventive maintenance and repairs, industry awards and said more than $460,000 has since been pumped into the Irvine avenue station to make sure the spills don't happen from there again. Another $351,000 has been budged to prevent future problems with the Indus line.

District officials also pointed to a $700,000 emergency vault at the failed Irvine Avenue station that "worked exactly as intended" in August 2013 by storing about 13,000 gallons of sewage that otherwise would have gone into the bay.

Burns and Carroll also questioned the prosecution's credentials, particularly how they have never managed or designed a sewer system.

The Santa Ana region's water board, which will have ultimate say on the fine, did not reach a decision Friday.

Sanitary district officials said funding with the sewer budget is available to absorb whatever penalty is levied, and that the fine will not affect rates.

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