State water-pollution officials on Wednesday proposed an unprecedented $1.5-million fine against the City of San Diego for the Thanksgiving Day spill of 1.5 million gallons of raw sewage into Los Penasquitos Lagoon.
The penalty recommended by the staff of the Regional Water Quality Control Board is believed by officials to be the largest ever proposed in the state. The second-largest was a $646,800 fine imposed on San Diego last year after a 4.5-million-gallon spill from the same station, Pump Station 64.
"The discharges, we have determined, have been entirely due to negligence on the part of the city," David Barker, a water board staff member, said in explaining the severity of the proposed fine. " . . . This is just another example of a discharge that need not have taken place if the station had been properly operated and maintained."
The November spill was the 59th in seven years from Pump Station 64, which serves San Diego's booming northern quadrant. In recent months, the spills have triggered sporadic building moratoriums in the area and an $8-million program to expand and upgrade the plant.
On Wednesday, the San Diego water pollution board issued a formal complaint against the city for the most recent mishap, which occurred early in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day. Under the law, the board's staff could recommend fines of up to $10 per gallon spilled.
However, the city will have an opportunity to challenge the penalty before the regional board at its monthly meeting Jan. 23. The appointed board, which makes the final decision, has often been reluctant to fine agencies funded by public money.
Barker said the recommendation was based on "the culpability of the city" and "how preventable (the spill) was." He said the spill occurred when the pump station's operator accidentally hit an emergency shutdown switch while trying to clear debris from a pump.
Barker said that mishap would not normally have caused a spill. But another valve on the pump station's force main was stuck shut, making it impossible to reactivate the plant. The operator had to call in an electrician and, in the meantime, the plant overflowed.
The city's permit to operate the Sorrento Valley plant requires that "they . . . maintain all the vital mechanical features in a state of operational readiness," Barker said. He said the valve "was not maintained in an operating condition."
However, Barker said the spill appears to have caused no permanent damage to the lagoon--a factor that the staff weighed in the city's favor. Taking that into account, the staff settled on a proposed penalty of $1 per gallon.
Barker said that penalty was the largest ever proposed in the San Diego region.
Sandra Salazar, a spokeswoman for the state Water Resources Control Board, said the fine is also believed by state board officials to to be the largest ever proposed by any of the staffs of the nine regional boards.
Although the second largest was last year's fine for Pump Station 64, the board suspended all but a small fraction of the penalty contingent on repairs being made at the plant.
San Diego Water Utilities Department officials declined to comment on the recommended penalty.
But City Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, who represents the district served by Pump Station 64, said she hoped that the board might allow the city to spend the $1.5 million on upgrading the plant rather than on a fine that might be spent outside the region.
"I can well understand their position," Wolfsheimer said. "We're lucky it wasn't $15 million."
Pump Station 64 pumps millions of gallons of raw sewage a day to the Point Loma sewage treatment plant. After six years of spills, the water board last spring threatened to impose a building moratorium in the area, which includes such communities as North City West, Scripps Ranch, Mira Mesa and Rancho Penasquitos.
To avert that, the City Council imposed its own moratorium, then lifted it, in part at the urging of the building industry. At that time, the council passed an ordinance to immediately reimpose the moratorium if and when there was another spill.
That spill occurred on Thanksgiving Day. The city reimposed its moratorium, then lifted it 10 days later.