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Study Dismisses County Claims on Septic Tanks : Environment: Leaks pose no health hazard, says a long-awaited report. It concludes that the city does not need a proposed $43-million sewer system.


MALIBU — A long-awaited Malibu study disputes claims by Los Angeles County officials that leaking septic tanks pose a health threat and concludes that the community does not need the comprehensive sewer system long promoted by the county.

In a 268-page report based on six months of research, a consultant hired by Malibu calls instead for a "cutting edge" approach to the city's waste-water needs that relies overwhelmingly on continued use of septic tanks, something the county has asserted is unacceptable.

The report by consultant Peter Warshall is expected to serve as a blueprint for Malibu's leaders as they seek once and for all to rid themselves of the county's ambitious sewer proposal and replace it with a plan of their own.

Opposition to the county's proposed $43-million sewer system served as the catalyst for Malibu's successful drive to incorporate last year.

Malibu's leaders, who have fought among themselves with increasing frequency in advance of next month's election in which three City Council seats are up for grabs, unitedly embraced the report.

"It completely skewers the county's claims, and demonstrates that the county's septic tank policy is from the troglodyte era," said Councilman Mike Caggiano, who echoed the sentiments of other elected officials.

Warshall's report, released this week, dismisses claims that leaky septic tanks have created a health hazard in Malibu. Such claims have long been the basis of the county's contention that a sewer system is needed.

"Only the weakest studies (have) been performed, and the data for those studies (have) neither been reliably collected nor appropriately analyzed," the report said.

County officials, meanwhile, wasted no time attempting to discredit the Warshall findings.

"The record is clear, especially along the beach, that there have been instances of raw sewage being disposed of (from leaky septic tanks)," said Harry Stone, the county's deputy director of public works. "To me, that's a health hazard."

Malibu's leaders agreed last year to come up with their own alternative to the county's sewer plans in return for the county's dropping its opposition to Malibu's incorporation.

As part of a so-called truce on the sewer issue, the county agreed to halt its attempts to win final approval for its sewer system from the California Coastal Commission.

Now that the city has a plan it is almost certain to embrace, its task--assuming there is community support for it--will be to persuade the Coastal Commission and other agencies that its approach is a viable alternative to the county's proposal.

However, there is no guarantee that the county, with its sewer assessment district already in place and having already spent an estimated $9 million on the effort, will be willing to give up without a fight.

Stone, who acknowledged that he had not seen the report, said public works officials plan to study it thoroughly in the next few weeks before making a recommendation to the County Board of Supervisors about what to do next.

Malibu officials have made it known that they will be looking to Supervisor Ed Edelman, whose district includes Malibu, to persuade a majority of the supervisors to give Malibu the freedom to pursue its own sewer alternative.

"That's what cityhood was all about and that's what we intend to emphasize," Councilman Walt Keller said.

In approving Malibu's cityhood bid in 1989, the Local Agency Formation Commission stipulated that the county would have control over the sewer system for up to 10 years after incorporation.

Sewer opponents, as well as some county officials, have expressed doubts about the legality of the provision. The provision is likely to be the focus of a pitched legal battle should Malibu and the county fail to reach an accommodation.

The report acknowledges that many of the more than 4,000 septic systems in use in Malibu are antiquated and in need of updating, but contends the county is to blame for having neglected to enforce proper standards for septics during the years it promoted a sewer system.

Warshall recommends a variety of technological innovations to upgrade individual septic tanks, as well as improvements to the city's five aging neighborhood sewage treatment facilities--or package plants--that serve nearly 1,000 homes and businesses.

Noting that Malibu is pocked with more than 250 landslides, and that hundreds of homes have been built atop the 15 largest landslides, the report suggests that individual septic tanks are a much safer alternative to running miles of sewer pipe across unstable terrain.

However, in keeping with the instructions given them by the City Council, Warshall and the 13 other consultants who contributed to the study did not address several key issues, including how much the plan will cost and whether a more conventional sewer system may be needed to accommodate future growth in Malibu's main commercial area.

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