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Environmental Group to Study Ventura River

Pollution: The city's fine for alleged illegal dumping of sewage will pay for an extensive monitoring program.


VENTURA — A national environmental organization is moving into Ventura County to keep an eye on pollution in the Ventura River, a push that comes in response to the alleged illegal dumping of tons of sludge on land north of the city.

Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, an arm of a nationwide environmental watchdog group founded by Robert Kennedy Jr., is expected to begin a 12-month monitoring program of the Ventura River watershed, its first major push into Ventura County, program manager Jessie Altstatt said.

The move comes after the Environmental Protection Agency imposed a $104,007 penalty against the city for allegedly illegally dumping too much treated sewer waste at Canada Larga Canyon, located near the river north of the city. The fine consists of a cash penalty of $17,507, while the rest of the money will go to pay for ChannelKeeper's services.

Four months ago, the city was considering options for settling the dispute with the EPA. Councilman Brian Brennan urged the council to look at ChannelKeeper.

"It's a huge opportunity," said Brennan, who added that he had been looking for a way to contract with ChannelKeeper to monitor the river.

He said the city hopes to recover the money paid out in the fine by filing a lawsuit against the contractor that dumped the sludge.

Between the end of 1997 and early 1998, Tri-County Builders Supply, an Oxnard contractor hired by the city to dump sludge on farmland, allegedly spread an excessive amount of the waste in fields near the Ventura River. Federal regulators said the waste was dumped too close to the river and harmful toxins could have reached the water.

Farmers commonly use the waste as a free fertilizer, and the city had been dumping the sludge for several years to reduce waste in landfills, said Public Works Director Ron Calkins.

Tri-County denies that it dumped the sludge inappropriately and company officials believe the city is planning a suit as a convenient way to pay for the ChannelKeeper program. It is unfair for the city to turn to its contractor to shoulder those costs, said Tri-County owner Shawn Campbell.

"If they come to me wanting to recoup, they're trying to get me to fund a project they were already committed to," Campbell said.

Despite those protests, the City Council is expected to approve the program with little controversy Monday.

The Santa Barbara chapter of ChannelKeeper was launched about a year ago under the auspices of the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center. It is backed by a network of volunteers, lawyers and activists, who function as a shadow enforcement agency to step in and demand cleanup of waters when bureaucracies fail.

It's modeled after similar efforts in San Francisco, Santa Monica and San Diego, which were launched in the wake of successes by fishermen and other watchdogs who took to the Hudson River in the 1980s to battle pollution from New York City.

Until now, the private, nonprofit organization has only made small inroads into the county, with one boat patrolling the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel and stepping into a controversy over the dumping of squid parts by fishermen.

The federal fine offered an opportunity for a bigger push.

"They were compelled to pay for an ongoing project, and ours fit the bill nicely," said program manager Altstatt.

She said the new program will be staffed by about 50 to 60 volunteers from the county who will collect samples at 12 sites on the river at least once a month to measure for pesticides and other pollutants. The project is particularly timely, Altstatt said, because her group will be able to gather baseline data to compare with the silt that washes down the river after the Matilija Dam comes down. Officials hope to tear down the dam, which is upstream from Ventura, in the next decade.

The city money will pay for the expensive measuring equipment, Altstatt said.

"We're hoping to track the sources of pollution," she said. "It's in [our] best interest to figure out what's going on."

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