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Ocean-Bound Sewage to Be Fully Treated

Environment: Orange County Sanitation District, persuaded by clean-beach arguments, agrees to drop its waiver.


By one vote, the Orange County Sanitation District late Wednesday opted to abandon a federal waiver that allows it to release into the ocean dirtier sewage than nearly all of the nation's 16,000 other sewer agencies.

In doing so, the district agreed to comply with the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.

"By us developing a policy of full secondary [standard of treatment], there's no need for a waiver," said Brian Brady, a representative of the Irvine Ranch Water District, who made the motion not to seek another waiver. He said the sanitation district will have to negotiate with federal regulators, "but I have full confidence that [sanitation district staff] can do that."

County Supervisor Tom Wilson, who opposed seeking another waiver, said that "as long as we're going in the right direction with the right speed, those agencies will applaud us for what we're doing, not penalize us."

An overflow crowd of more than 200 people listened to the speakers' comments during the nearly four-hour meeting. They packed the boardroom, another nearby room and spilled out onto the lawn. When the vote was announced, the spectators cheered.

The sanitation district is the largest of 36 agencies nationwide holding a five-year waiver to the federal Clean Water Act. That waiver expires in June 2003. Canceling the waiver will bring a higher level of treatment, although it will take about 11 years and about $400 million to get there, district officials say. That would mean an average cost increase of $16 annually for homeowners and a major increase for large businesses.

The price tag does not sit well with Julie Puentes of the Orange County Business Council. "It will not be acceptable for rate payers to bear the cost ... only to find that the [beach pollution] problem continues," she said.

But other speakers countered that the cost will be minimal compared to the economic gain of cleaning up the area's beaches.

"The bottom line is [that] the end user is going to have to pay a little bit more," said Ken Kramer, president of the California State Lifeguards Assn. "Let me have the honor of being the first," he said as he handed an official a $16 check.

The Clean Water Act requires two levels of treatment to kill most bacteria and viruses before sewage is discharged into oceans, rivers and lakes. Since 1977, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been allowed to grant waivers to this requirement in cases where it would not harm the environment or public health. In California, state water regulators must also sign off on the five-year waiver.

The district, which serves more than 2.7 million customers in central and northern Orange County, discharges 243 million gallons of moderately treated sewage into the ocean daily. The waiver means that only half of that sewage receives two levels of treatment.

Abandoning the waiver seemed to have greater support on the board until sanitation district lawyers warned that while the new treatment facility is being built, the agency would be liable for at least $3,000 a day in fines because it would not have a waiver in place. Some board members railed against the staff for raising this issue at the last minute, but in the end, the board voted 13 to 12 not to seek extension of the waiver.

Christopher J. Evans, executive director of the Surfrider Foundation, said after the vote that "what happened today is a victory for generations in Orange County and marine life and the economy."

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