YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Region

'Dr. Sewage' Pushes Water Treatment

Profile: After 20 years of activism, the Huntington Beach doctor has it down to a science. His latest foe: the O.C. Sanitation District and its waiver.


Activist Jan Vandersloot could never be mistaken for an in-your-face radical. The Huntington Beach physician is soft-spoken, obeys the law and abides by the theory that change comes from within, even if it's slow.

And slowly, steadily, the 57-year-old dermatologist has fought--often successfully--for preservation of the Bolsa Chica and Little Shell wetlands along Orange County's coast and campaigned for water quality projects. Now, he is taking on one of Southern California's largest sanitation agencies to force it to stop pumping partially treated waste water into the ocean.

The latest fight has taken Vandersloot out of his office and into the halls of power in Sacramento, where he testified in favor of legislation to force the Orange County Sanitation District to abide by the federal Clean Water Act and fully treat the waste water it pumps four miles off Huntington Beach.

The sanitation district, meanwhile, is considering whether to seek renewal of a federal waiver that allows it to dump 243 million gallons of partially treated sewage per day.

"They call me Dr. Sewage," said Vandersloot, who was born in New Jersey, went to Cornell University, then the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas before heading farther West.

He has formed the Ocean Outfall Group, a loose-knit organization that holds no meetings, collects no dues and elects no officers. It survives on its e-mail list, which has evolved into a "Who's Who" of Orange County environmental activism and now numbers about 250 people.

The group relies on about 20 core activists who turn up at public meetings, urging water districts and city councils to help end the waiver.

Public meetings, not chaining oneself to a developer's bulldozer, are Vandersloot's staple. And he's been to plenty of them over the last several years, when the subject was the sanitation district's waiver, which would expire next year. The 25-member sanitation board's next hearing on whether to seek renewal of its waiver is July 17.

In recent years, the Huntington Beach shore has been plagued by high bacteria counts. A $5-million sanitation district study released two months ago did not find a definitive source for the bacteria but could not rule out the blend of fully and partially treated waste water the district pumps offshore.

Activists are demanding that the district fully treat all the waste water it discharges into the ocean, as do most of the nation's 16,000 sanitation districts.

But treating all of its outflow to the highest levels--by using microorganisms to eliminate bacteria and viruses--would cost $250 million, said Robert P. Ghirelli, director of technical services for the sanitation district.

That averages an additional $16 annually per household for 20 years.

The district treats waste from more than 2 million people and is the nation's largest sanitation district operating with a waiver. While sanitation district officials say they admire Vandersloot's passion, two said he used faulty statistics at a board meeting.

Top sanitation district officials, including General Manager Blake Anderson, declined to comment on Vandersloot's activism, saying they did not want to further polarize opposing sides.

Because the issue stirs passions, security has been stepped up at the board meetings, with police outside and private security guards inside.

Vandersloot and other activists have had to wage their battle using the only means available for private parties in public meetings--the public-comment period.

That has meant attending two or more meetings a week, sometimes waiting until late in the session to have their say, and usually for no more than three minutes.

Organized and quotable, Vandersloot and members of his Ocean Outfall Group frequently pop up in newspaper articles, which has caught the attention of Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) and his staff.

This year, when Maddox introduced AB 1969, which would force the sanitation district to fully treat its waste water before pumping it into the ocean, he invited Vandersloot to testify in favor of the bill in April.

The doctor was the dream lobbyist, Maddox's staff said. Not only was he early and organized in his presentation, but after the hearing he went door to door talking with legislators.

The bill, which is opposed by Anderson, the sanitation district's general manager, cleared the Assembly and is in the Senate's Appropriations Committee.

Mark Reeder, Maddox's chief of staff, said Vandersloot's persuasive style has succeeded where other outspoken advocates did not.

"I don't bring a lot of credibility when I or any other Republican says, 'Hey, I've got a great environmental bill,' " Reeder said. "But a guy with Vandersloot's credentials walks in and it's a different reaction.

"They love it and eat it up."

Added Maddox: "I have seen activists here and they don't have a good understanding of how the Capitol operates. When you get up and testify, you have to be concise and precise. Jan is able to do that."

Los Angeles Times Articles