The Seal Beach City Council voted 4 to 1 Monday night to oppose the local sanitation district's policy of dumping partly treated sewage that fails to meet U.S. Clean Water Act standards.
The Orange County Sanitation District pumps 243 million gallons of moderately treated sewage into the Pacific every day--enough to fill the Rose Bowl three times. It has done so legally since 1985, through a series of waivers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The council's vote against renewing the waiver makes it the first municipality in Orange County to do so. Mayor pro tem John Larson voted to extend the waiver.
During public comments at Monday's council meeting, more than a dozen people argued for a change of policy.
"The pendulum swings our way for the first time in 17 years," said Joey Racano, a Huntington Beach activist and member of Ocean Outfall Group, organized to lobby Orange County cities to stop the release of sewage into the sea. "This is a biggie. This is huge. It's the death knell for the waiver." The waiver comes up for renewal every five years. It expires next year.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to discharge a large amount of sewage off our coast," said City Councilman Paul Yost. "It seems to me it's kind of crazy to discharge 240 million gallons a day of potentially lethal stuff five miles off our coast. Even if you're saying it doesn't reach the coast today, what about tomorrow? What about next week?"
The sanitation district can discharge effluent with higher concentrations of bacteria, human waste and other organic solids than allowed by almost any other such agency in the nation. Only 36 of 16,000 publicly owned sewage agencies have such waivers. The OCSD, which serves nearly 2.4 million people in central and northern Orange County, is the biggest.
District officials say decades of monitoring show that the plume of treated waste they discharge four miles offshore is neither a health hazard to humans nor harmful to marine creatures.
To go to full secondary treatment--as mandated by the federal Clean Water Act--the district would have to spend $400 million to build a new plant, which district officials have said would increase pollution in the air and on land. They say building a plant would require a tax increase of $75 a year for a typical residence and as much as $120,000 for some businesses.
The waivers, however, face growing opposition. Ocean Outfall Group members are speaking at city council meetings in northern and central Orange County and have picketed the sanitation district's Fountain Valley headquarters.
The group's members have won backing from long-established environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.
A resolution from Seal Beach opposing the waiver is the grass-roots organization's first concrete victory.
Newport Beach is considering a similar measure and could act as soon as September.
Ending the waiver would require support from half of the sanitation district's 25 board members. Each city served by the district has a seat on the board.
Although coastal cities appear open to changing the policy, those inland so far have been less receptive.
The waiver became a cause for concern after a scientist at UC Irvine theorized that sewage released offshore might have caused the economically devastating 1999 coastal closures in Huntington Beach.
Preliminary results of a $5.1-million OCSD study have not shown the plume of sewage making it all the way back to the shoreline; however, it crept within a mile of the coast, far too close for Huntington Beach city officials and environmentalists.