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Averting Spills Is Intent of New Edict

Pollution: State water board proposes ordering more inspections and speedier repairs of sewer lines in northern and central parts of O.C.


On a day when two sewage spills fouled ocean waters off Orange County, state water officials announced their intention to force more inspections of the county's aging sewer lines and faster reactions to spills.

Under the proposed rules outlined Thursday, cities and other agencies in the northern and central parts of the county also would have to fix crumbling pipes more quickly and report spills more consistently.

"Simply put, the purpose of this is to reduce or eliminate sewage spills," said Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency that enforces the federal Clean Water Act and state water-quality laws in northern and central Orange County.

City and business officials said that while they support the board's goal, they worry about finding the money to pay for it.

"I think it's something that needs to be done," said Terry Lane, water services manager for Garden Grove. But "I think it's going to be costly to implement a lot of it."

The proposed order covers 32 agencies that collect sewage, mostly cities and sanitation agencies. It would forbid all spills and require better monitoring and planning for faster mop-ups of spills. It allows for fines of $5,000 per day in case of failure.

The regional board is an arm of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Even as the state announced its plans to impose stiff new rules, the Orange County Health Care Agency closed nearly two miles of shoreline in Dana Point, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach that were tainted by an estimated 11,000 gallons of raw human waste because of two spills. There have been 45 spills in Orange County this year that have fouled coastal waters, and hundreds more spills that never reached the ocean.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says most sewage spills are preventable. "The goal here is to prevent those spills from ever occurring in the first place," Berchtold said.

Staff for the regional water board found that operations, maintenance, spill response and spill reporting vary greatly among the 32 agencies. Even sewer budgets vary greatly. For instance, the Yorba Linda Water District spends $1.19 per person per year on operations and maintenance, while the Sunset Beach Sanitation District spends $175 per person per year.

The proposed rules will be discussed at a public workshop at 9 a.m. Dec. 7 in Loma Linda. The earliest the regional board could vote on them is Jan. 25.

If the rules are adopted, the agencies must immediately implement a stepped-up monitoring plan. In phases over the next five years, agencies must also create a rehabilitation plan for their entire system, a sewer-system management plan, emergency spill response plan and grease control program. Lines clogged by grease are common causes of sewage spills.

The proposal is modeled in part after an EPA plan that was stalled when the Bush administration entered office. In November, the agency announced that the proposal was moving forward.

Some agencies were already planning to spend money to meet the proposed federal rules. For instance, Newport Beach is spending $800,000 on it this year, said Dave Kiff, assistant city manager.

"It's definitely going to be costly," he said. "But the bottom line that everyone quietly will admit is that each agency should have [already] been doing this."

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