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County Agency Fined $107,500 for Sewage Spill

The penalty was levied against the Sanitation District for a 59,600-gallon discharge in June.


The Orange County Sanitation District was fined $107,500 Thursday for a June sewer spill that sent nearly 60,000 gallons of untreated human waste into the Pacific Ocean off Seal Beach.

The spill, which occurred June 9 in La Habra, was caused by a repair error, said Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer for the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency based in Riverside that imposed the fine. A contractor fixing a sewer line diverted the flow to a parallel line, which could handle the extra sewage during "low-flow" hours, midnight to 6 a.m. But work continued past 6 a.m.

"The single line was not able to handle the combined flow, backed up in the system and overflowed from a manhole upstream," Berchtold said.

Workers captured about 1,000 gallons of sewage, but 59,600 gallons spilled into a storm drain that dumped into Coyote Creek, which flows into the San Gabriel River. The sewage then emptied into the ocean at Seal Beach, forcing health officials to close a half-mile stretch of beach for three days.

Blake Anderson, general manager of Orange County's largest waste treatment agency, which serves 2.2 million people in northern Orange County, said he probably would not appeal the fine. However, he said he would like to see the money spent on water issues in Orange County, something the regional board has the discretion to do.

The contractor, Buena Park-based Fleming Engineering, is not obligated to pay for its error, but Anderson said, "I think we can sit down as gentlemen and share the pain."

A public hearing on the fine is scheduled for the regional board's Nov. 17 meeting in Huntington Beach.

The board usually calculates a penalty based on the amount spilled. However, this time members used a novel approach that the Los Angeles regional board has used. "In determining the amount, we considered the value of the loss of the beach," Berchtold said.

They estimated that the stretch of beach closed would have been visited by 6,500 people per day, and that 25% stayed away because of the closure. Estimating the value at $20 per person per day, officials came up with a $97,500 fine and added $10,000 because the spill was an illegal discharge. Under state law, the district could have been fined nearly $600,000.

The spill was one of 34 so far this year to foul Orange County's coast. The latest was at Dana Point Harbor's boat-launch and fueling area, which remained closed to swimmers Thursday after a blocked line forced about 100 gallons of sewage to overflow into a storm drain.

Tree roots blocked a sewer line under county-owned property, Health Care Agency spokeswoman Monica Mazur said.

Workers from South Coast Water District, figuring the spill came from their line, cleared the roots, even though it wasn't their responsibility.

"Kudos to them," Mazur said. "They found it wasn't their line, but they cleaned it anyway."


Correspondent Sharon Nagy contributed to this report.

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