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Orange County

Negative Study on Sewage Was Withheld

Environment: Grand jury says Orange County Sanitation District didn't disclose to public for five years a report on water quality off Newport.

April 25, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County's largest sanitation agency has withheld sensitive water-quality reports, including a study mapping an offshore sewage plume that the agency did not disclose for five years, the county grand jury said.

The Orange County Sanitation District report, referred to as "The 20 Meter Study," found that partially treated waste water from a controversial sewage outfall four miles off the county's coast washes back to within 11/2 miles of Newport Beach--far closer than previously disclosed.

Begun in 1996, the study was never seen by the public, although part of it was made available to regulatory agencies. Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and other coastal cities were not advised about the study's findings.

According to the grand jury's report, issued this week, "the results were not published for over five years."

The jury recommended releasing agency studies to the public in a timely fashion, publishing study results, putting study topics on the agency's Web page and providing public access to research data.

The sanitation board, which met Wednesday night, was expected to adopt the jury's recommendations, a spokeswoman said. Blake Anderson, the agency's general manager, said in a prepared statement that communicating with the public "is a high priority with this agency, and we will use the recommendations to improve the way we disseminate research studies to the community."

While the agency did not comment on why it withheld the study, the grand jury reported that the district is largely "self-monitored." With the exception of regulatory agencies, it is "free to decide what data or research to reveal to the [state water board] and the public."

The grand jury's report comes at a critical time for the sanitation district, which operates under a waiver to the federal Clean Water Act. That act requires at least secondary treatment of sewage before it can be released into waterways.

The waiver is up for renewal in 2003. Three coastal cities that belong to the district have gone on record as opposing another waiver, as have several inland cities.

Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) has sponsored a bill that would kill the waiver.

Maddox said his bill, AB 1969, cleared the Assembly's Environmental Safety and Toxics Committee on Tuesday.

"It's not so surprising that they were so slow to release this study," Maddox said. "But the taxpayers deserve a better explanation than 'the dog ate my homework.'"

Environmentalist Doug Korthof wasn't surprised by the grand jury's findings. But he and other environmentalists had sought a stronger reprimand from grand jurors.

The agency, which bills itself as the "third-largest waste water treatment system west of the Mississippi River," serves more than 2.2-million customers, primarily in central and northern Orange County.

The grand jury focused only on the agency's studies and what it did with them; it did not choose to involve itself with the agency's overall direction or policies.

"We're not scientists," juror Kenda Marlin said.

"We're just saying that studying what's going on in the ocean is important," she said. "And, if it's worth spending taxpayer money on it, then it should be made available to the public."

Jurors found that the agency has not disclosed the existence of all publicly funded studies and has no written policies on report preparation or distributing them when completed.

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