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O.C. Officials Face Criminal Dumping Trial

May 02, 1997|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — The Orange County district attorney's office has filed criminal charges against the Capistrano Beach Water District, its general manager and a supervisor, alleging they illegally dumped sewage for two years into San Juan Creek which empties off Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

The charges result from the first major environmental investigation of a public agency, officials said Thursday.

Steven Cory Sanchez, 39, a district supervisor who allegedly ordered district employees to dump the sewage sludge, was charged on Wednesday with 18 felony counts and two misdemeanors. Dennis Emerson McClain, 62, the district's general manager, was charged with eight misdemeanors, including negligence.

An attorney for the water district and the two other defendants denied the district attorney's allegations, saying they were "technical in nature" and that the conduct of all three defendants did not harm or threaten the health or safety of local residents.

Samples of the dirt where the sludge was allegedly dumped revealed "extremely high fecal coliform levels," relating to human or animal waste, according to the district attorney's office.

The charges cap a yearlong probe of the agency, suspected of engaging in an illegal practice "that became a policy" of ordering its truck drivers to collect sewage sludge and then let it seep into the ground outside the district's Dana Point facility, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Lyman said. She said the agency is suspected of illegal dumping between April 29, 1994, and May 29, 1996.

"Our allegations are that [Sanchez] directed district employees to dump sewage sludge from vacuum trucks next to the facility in Dana Point," Lyman said. "We expect to prove that it was placed in such a location that it can find its way into the creek and into Doheny State Beach."

Lyman said the facility is not equipped to dispose of this waste and does not have a solid waste disposal permit to do so. The water district's attorney released only a prepared statement and could not be reached to comment on whether or why the agency was collecting the sewage sludge.

The long investigation included surveillance of district vehicles and employees, as well as aerial photographs of the facility and its proximity to the creek.

If found guilty, Sanchez faces a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine for each felony count.

McClain faces a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine for each misdemeanor count. However, on each of two water code counts, McClain faces a minimum $5,000 and a year in county jail.

Paul Meyer, a criminal defense attorney representing the agency, McClain and Sanchez, said his clients are expected to enter not guilty pleas at a May 20 arraignment in Municipal Court in Laguna Niguel.

"The age of the allegations, mainly May 1996, one year ago, highlights the technical nature rather than any actual danger of the allegations," Meyer said in a prepared statement. "At present, we are evaluating these charges . . . and anticipate that a favorable resolution will arise once all of the facts have been considered by the district attorney."

For years, swimmers and surfers at Doheny State Beach, which lies at the mouth of San Juan Creek, have complained of itchy skin rashes and eye, ear and mouth infections. The beach has repeatedly been closed because of polluted water.

Although Lyman said the allegations against the defendants were serious, she could not directly link the agency's dumping to the beach closures. The agency is located at 25752 Victoria Blvd., Capistrano Beach.

"There is a good chance of a correlation between the sewage sludge that has been dumped adjacent to the [facility] and finding some high coliform counts on the beach," Lyman said.

She said health experts could be called during trial and may shed more light on the risks.

"But proof that they contaminated the beach is not the legal issue here," Lyman said. "The issue here is that they [illegally] dumped the sewage. The public has a right to protection. This was an area known to be frequented by people walking through and walking their dogs. They dumped this on land and it led to a state beach frequented by families and surfers."

According to a search warrant affidavit filed by Kip Kinnings, an environmental crimes investigator with the district attorney's office, he witnessed a district truck at the Capistrano Beach Sanitation facility site on April 2, 1996, "drive around the field discharging a liquid sludge material from the rear tank area."

A skip loader then was seen moving dirt onto the dumped sludge material, Kinnings said.

Last May 29, Kinnings returned, this time with Larry Honeybourne, chief of water quality for the county's Health Care Agency. Kinnings said he saw another truck enter the sanitation facility, drive to the dirt field south of the facility and again discharge liquid from the rear of its tank.

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