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O.C. Faces Divisive Vote on Sewage

Oceans: Full treatment called 'business killer.' Other side says clean water trumps low taxes.

July 16, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO and DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County is as famous for its miles of surfer-friendly beaches as for its staunch anti-tax politics.

This week, the county is going to have to choose between the two.

Beset over the last three years by a series of beach closures triggered by pollution, county officials will decide Wednesday whether to continue dumping partly treated sewage into the Pacific about four miles off Huntington Beach. The alternative is to boost the level of treatment the sewage receives--a pricey proposition that would increase the fees paid by many businesses and homeowners.

Despite the cost, the plan has gained support from some unlikely sources, including a conservative county supervisor, a GOP assemblyman and 10 city councils.

To many, the vote marks a critical test: whether Orange County is willing to put taxpayer dollars behind the often-stated goal of improving beach water quality.

"It's a legacy vote," said Jan Vandersloot, one of many environmentalists who have lobbied the county sanitation district to boost sewage treatment. "It will show how [the county] wants to approach water quality for the future."

Environmentalists have tried to make the case that cleaner beaches are crucial to the county's economy, pointing to the heavy losses Huntington Beach merchants suffered in the summer of 1999 when the city's beaches were off-limits because of high bacteria levels.

But the business community has come out squarely against the plan, saying it would hurt big companies and may devastate small ones.

Disneyland now pays $430,000 a year in sewer fees. The total would rise to $1 million by 2015 under a rate-increase plan tied to increased water treatment.

Cost to Business

"Going to full ... treatment is a business killer," said Placentia Councilman Norman Z. Eckenrode. His city is home to a jam and jelly company run by Knott's Berry Farm with about 125 employees. Its annual sewer bill, according to estimates provided by the sanitation district, would rise from $180,000 to $466,000 by 2015.

Eckenrode fears the bills will result in an exodus of small companies. "They're likely to say, 'Goodbye, Orange County. We're headed for Riverside County or Mexico.' "

The Orange County Sanitation District holds a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency that allows it to treat sewage at a less stringent level than what is required by most of the nation's 16,000 other sewage agencies.

No definitive evidence shows that sewage dumped into the ocean caused the beach closures in Huntington and elsewhere. A recent study by the district could not determine a cause for the pollution, but also could not rule out the sewage.

Still, support for dropping the waiver has come from across the political spectrum. Jim Silva, a conservative county supervisor with strong anti-tax credentials, is asking the Board of Supervisors today to adopt a resolution urging more treatment. Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) has sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would prohibit the county from seeking an extension of the waiver.

To some, this broad coalition reflects the changing political dynamics in Orange County, and how safe politicians feel advocating a policy that might result in higher fees as long as the issue--notably the environment--is close to the hearts of voters.

'A Quality-of-Life Issue'

Protecting the beaches "is a quality-of-life issue that goes to the core of what it means to be living in Southern California," said Fred Smoller, head of the political science department at Chapman University in Orange. "This is a visceral issue for people. Clean water trumps low taxes; it's just that simple."

The sanitation district board has been debating for months whether to renew the waiver. Although the issue is cutting across ideological lines, a geographic split is emerging. Opposition to the waiver is strongest in coastal areas, while many officials in inland cities have yet to take a position.

The sanitation district now treats sewage with what is called a 50-50 blend before it is dumped into the ocean. All of the sewage gets primary treatment. Half of the sewage then gets a secondary treatment, which removes suspended solids such as fecal debris, bacteria and viruses.

If the county doesn't get its waiver renewed, it would have to perform secondary treatment on all sewage. Officials said they would have to build a new facility at a cost of up to $430 million.

Eckenrode and business leaders said the county should continue with the waiver but explore less expensive ways to treat sewage, such as microfiltration, ultraviolet radiation and reverse osmosis.

Environmentalists said that's not enough and believe the public agrees with them.

"They're grossly misreading the public if they think the public won't support this," said Chris Evans, head of the Surfrider Foundation in San Clemente.

Other environmentalists dispute the costs of secondary treatment reported by the sanitation district, calling them scare tactics.

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