A little-known provision of the sweeping Big Green initiative could force Orange County to double the sewer bills of most residents and spend $1.4 billion to improve its system for treating waste before it is pumped into the ocean.
As a result, most city and county officials in Orange County oppose the statewide environmental initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot, arguing that the county's existing sewage treatment already safeguards the ocean and that the costly project would yield negligible benefits.
Environmentalists contend that the improvements are necessary because California's ocean waters are being filled with millions of gallons of waste every day that could pose a risk to swimmers and turn waters into "dead zones" for marine life.
"Eventually, there will be sudden and irreversible collapse of the ocean ecosystem, and we don't think it's worth the risk," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's deputy conservation director and an author of Proposition 128, better known as Big Green.
At issue is a provision generally overlooked amid the initiative's wider issues of global warming, ozone depletion and pesticide use.
It would require all sewage to undergo secondary treatment, an advanced process that eliminates 85% of solid pollutants, before it is released into the ocean or waterways, beginning in the year 2000.
Such treatment is required by federal law, but Orange County is the largest of 60 areas nationwide that have been granted an exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency, mainly because its effluent is considered "high quality" and is released five miles out to sea. Only three small towns in California have similar waivers.
"We don't see any justified reason to spend $1.4 billion when there's no demonstrated problem," said J. Wayne Sylvester, general manager of the Orange County Sanitation Districts. "Based on the scientific work we did and the ocean monitoring, we believe very strongly that the current program protects the ocean."
The higher sewer rates and a cleaner ocean are the factors in Big Green that could have the most direct impact on Orange County residents. The far-reaching ballot measure also sets up a $500-million oil-spill fund, phases out cancer-causing pesticides, cuts greenhouse gases by 20%, conserves redwoods and tackles many other environmental issues.
The high cost of Proposition 128 is the major ammunition being used by opponents, who estimate that its implementation will cost California $8 billion to $12 billion per year. Environmentalists dispute that figure, saying Californians will eventually save money in health and environmental costs.
A Times Poll conducted last week showed Californians are split on the proposition: 44% oppose the measure and 42% support it.
The focal point of the sewage debate is a pipeline that stretches from the shore of Huntington Beach near Brookhurst Avenue five miles out to sea, resting on a bed of rocks at a depth of 200 feet.
Every day, 260 million gallons of waste water is discharged into the ocean through the pipeline. Half of this has undergone secondary treatment, while the other half has undergone a less thorough stage of treatment called advanced primary.
Under the existing system, an average of 75% of the solid substances in Orange County's sewage is eliminated, compared to 85% if all of it were subjected to secondary treatment. The difference amounts to about 32 tons of solids a day pumped into the ocean, according to a sanitation agency report.
In addition, 370 pounds of toxics a day would be discharged, instead of the current 550 pounds, the report said. Bacteria concentrations--an indicator of viruses and other threats--would drop from the 1.3 million organisms per 100 milliliters using the current system to 200,000.
Sanitation officials say the initiative might not apply to Orange County's sewage because, unlike that of other areas, it is discharged in federal waters that are beyond the usual 3-mile state limits. If the measure passes, legal challenges are probably the only way the issue will be resolved in Orange County.
Environmentalists who drafted Big Green said they hadn't considered Orange County's unique situation with its deep-sea pipeline. But they intended the county to be included, and they believe the courts would agree.
"They would have to comply unless they can demonstrate it doesn't reach state waters. But the ocean doesn't work that way," the Sierra Club's Pope said. "Orange County's (waste) winds up in our waters."
To pay for the improved treatment system, sewer bills would increase for about 2 million Orange County residents, from Irvine north to the county line, who are served by the Orange County Sanitation Districts. South County residents are served by different agencies that already comply.
An average residential sewer bill would gradually increase from the current $53 per year to $113 if the county switched to full secondary treatment, sanitation officials say.