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OCSD Must Clean Its Image

July 28, 2002

The Orange County Sanitation District showed courage with its decision to do a better job of cleaning up sewage before pumping it into the ocean. Unfortunately, the district had backed itself into the position of needing that bravery.

Still, let's give credit where it's due. The district board found itself in an ironic position July 17 when it made the environmentally friendly decision not to seek an extension to a waiver that had allowed the legal pumping of 120 million gallons a day of bacteria- and virus-laden sewage into the ocean. By agreeing to let the waiver lapse, the sanitation district has opened itself up to potential fines of $3,000 a day for polluting the ocean, starting in July, 2003. That's a daunting prospect given that the treatment facilities could take 11 years to build.

Voting without assurances of protection from fines was a step into an uncertain future for board members. State and federal officials with the power to fine the sanitation district should not punish the district for finally moving in the right direction. Regulators should, however, make sure that the district moves expeditiously to build the expanded treatment plant.

State water officials gave the board a vote of confidence two days after the waiver vote by allowing the district to chlorinate sewage being pumped into the ocean. The district says it will limit the use of chlorination and, within three to five years, switch to a nontoxic technology, possibly ultraviolet light, to treat the sewage.

The district should be held to that goal. Chlorination is a problematic solution. Chlorine can produce chloroform when it reacts with organic matter in the water. Though it kills off unwanted bacteria, it's unclear whether chlorine also kills viruses and other potential sources of disease.

The district has promised to limit the amount of chlorination so the marine environment isn't harmed. But the sewage agency hasn't built a reputation for trustworthiness, so regulators will have to keep close tabs on that promise.

Regulators must carefully monitor the chlorination project and make sure testing meets the most rigorous standards. Chlorination cannot be allowed to evolve into a delaying tactic that pushes back the planned move to another form of disinfection that won't be as harsh on the ocean. Regulators also must ensure that the district moves quickly from simple disinfection to full secondary treatment.

The district dragged its heels for years on adopting stricter treatment of sewage, arguing that the sewage outfall plume remained miles offshore. This year, though, the district said that the sewage plume had moved to within half a mile of the beach.

The district repeatedly has maintained that treating sewage to the national standard would be an expensive proposition that could cost $400 million. A month ago, the board unexpectedly acknowledged that the cost would be $270 million. Taxpayers, who will pay for the treatment plant, must believe that they're being handed an accurate figure.

The sanitation district maintains that it has been forthcoming, but after the lengthy argument over the waiver extension, the district must convince customers that it is ready to clean up its image by acting quickly on its promise to improve treatment. During coming years, the district's actions clearly will speak louder than words.

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