The Capistrano Beach Sanitary District was notified Wednesday that it will lose its operating permit from the South Coast Air Quality Management District because it has been emitting foul odors and has become "a public nuisance," an AQMD spokeswoman said.
If the treatment plant continues to operate after receiving written notice of the decision, AQMD spokeswoman Jeanne Randol said, it could face fines of up to $50,000 a day. The notice to the small district, which treats sewage from 1,000 homes in San Clemente and 2,500 in Capistrano Beach, should arrive Friday or Monday, Randol said.
Late Wednesday, Ray Maddocks, the Capistrano district's general manager, said the plant had worked "to mask the odor," and he vehemently denied that AQMD intended to revoke the district's operating permit.
'Where's It Going to Go?'
"That's not correct," Maddocks said. "They can't refuse us permission to operate. Hey, where's it (the sewage) going to go? People keep flushing their toilets."
Elliott Serrel, AQMD deputy director, said Wednesday night that, "as a practical matter," his district does not intend to shut the plant down--"however, we will cite them, absolutely."
He said the Capistrano district has the right to appeal to AQMD's hearing board, but he said it was unlikely that AQMD's decision would be reversed. He also said the Capistrano district may seek a variance from AQMD, but that fines would continue in the interim.
Capistrano Beach residents had complained that the odor of raw sewage had pervaded their neighborhood for a month, Randol said.
Plant Cited 6 Times Recently
In addition, she said, the sanitary district has been cited by AQMD six times recently for creating a public nuisance because of its smell: on May 26, May 27, June 3, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Each violation carries a fine of $10,000 to $25,000, depending on whether AQMD lawyers decide it was intentional.
"As far as we are concerned, it's an ongoing public nuisance," she said of the Capistrano district's operations.
Ever since the sanitary district began cleaning a sewage treatment tank called a "digester" about two months ago, Capistrano residents in the area have complained loudly about the smell.
The digester had not been cleaned in about 15 years, said Ray Lewis, sanitary district consulting engineer, so the sewage inside is unusually pungent.
Gas Masks Worn at Meeting
Wearing gas masks and surgical masks, about 75 Capistrano Beach residents attended a sanitary district meeting Tuesday night to demand that board members do something about the smell.
"It's pretty terrible," Rene Stahl, manager of the Beachwood Mobile Home Park across the street from the treatment facility, said Wednesday. "It's caused a lot of nausea and headaches. It's spoiled people's barbecues, and it's been intolerable."
Told of AQMD's decision, Stahl said, "It's time they did."
Sanitary district officials said they are nearing the end of the cleaning. They have taken the muck out of the digester and placed it on solar drying beds, where it is mixed with sawdust, dirt and other materials to reduce the odor, Lewis said.
General manager Maddocks vowed that on Friday the dried sewage will be trucked to a landfill. He noted that the district had bought and installed new equipment and "changed our method of processing solids" to avoid odors in the future.