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Sewage Issue Gets Murky

Environment: Accuracy of monitor that showed acceptable outflow from Huntington treatment plant questioned. New device may be required.

January 27, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY and SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Orange County Sanitation District removed a pollution monitoring device after a state inspector said it was generating questionable readings, making him suspect that sewage flowing into the ocean exceeded legal limits for water clarity, documents and interviews show.

The device, installed voluntarily in 1996, was pulled out of a Huntington Beach treatment plant in October, shortly after a meeting with the water-quality inspector, who raised questions about miscalibrations and apparent false readings, his reports show.

The device, a turbidity analyzer, is not required. But it has become a popular round-the-clock monitoring tool at public and private sewer plants across the nation because it can signal trouble in the treatment process.

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, the area's primary enforcer of federal and state discharge permits, is exploring whether to require the Orange County agency to reinstall such a monitor.

Sanitation officials oppose this, arguing that the daily laboratory samples they take under current regulations are enough to ensure that the partially treated sewage meets clean-water standards.

Because those samples show no violations, they said, another level of monitoring is unnecessary. In any case, they said the system never worked properly and was never relied upon for official readings.

"It was something that was in place, like a clock on the wall. You look at it when you want to know the time, and when you don't, you don't look at it," said Lisa Murphy, spokeswoman for the agency, which serves more than 2 million households and businesses in north and central Orange County.

"It's something we put in place originally thinking we could use it.... And it was not being used," Murphy said. "So there's really no magical explanation as to why it stayed there unused."

Questions about the monitor emerge as the sanitation district seeks to extend a federal permit allowing it to discharge 243 million gallons a day of partially treated waste water 4 1/2 miles off Huntington Beach.

The district is the largest of 36 public agencies in the country--and one of four remaining in California--with a waiver to the 1972 Clean Water Act, which mandates that sewage released into waterways receive rigorous treatment to kill most bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing organisms.

The monitor was intended to measure turbidity--cloudiness in the water--which is one of more than 120 variables the sanitation district must track under restrictions established by California's Ocean Plan and federal law.

Turbidity violations could cost up to $11,000 a day, depending on the severity and duration. They also could jeopardize renewal of the waiver. To date, the district has not been cited.

Turbid water blocks out light, decreasing vegetation, which provides food and shelter to marine life.

"As it reduces light, it decreases photosynthesis," said Clint Winant, a professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. "Generally, you would decrease the productivity of waters."

While turbidity itself doesn't affect human health, experts said its presence can indicate more significant problems elsewhere in the treatment flow, including concentrations of bacteria-laden solid waste.

Proponents of turbidity analyzers say they provide quicker feedback than lab samples. In California, they have been approved for use at some public and private treatment plants that discharge into streams and rivers that are more sensitive to, and less able to dilute, highly turbid waste water.

Initially, sanitation district officials told the inspector the $5,400 monitor was used for a short-term research project after the agency recorded an over-the-limit turbidity reading in 1994. When asked for findings of the research project, officials told The Times the system actually was installed in 1996 as part of an upgrade to the Huntington Beach sampling station. They said it was never used for research and was abandoned after tests showed turbidity readings that did not correspond with lab samples.

A series of water board inspection reports reviewed by The Times shows that water regulators got involved in January 2001, when inspector Julio Lara noticed a pinkish tint to waste water at the sampling station, along with high turbidity readings.

After visiting the plant several times over the next 10 months, he discovered the system's calibration scales were set at levels lower than the legal limits. Sometimes, he noted, the meter would flat-line at the top of that preset limit for hours.

"The turbidity trend resembled a horizontal line with occasional downward peaks," Lara wrote in one of his reports. "These findings may indicate that [the sanitation district] may be exceeding effluent turbidity limitations."

However, the agency's own reports, based on daily laboratory samples, showed no violations during the same period, Lara noted.

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