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Fine for Sewage Spill Is Derided

Thousand Oaks city attorney will urge council to appeal, saying water board's $200,000 reduction of $2.3-million penalty 'wasn't meaningful.'

October 31, 2002|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

A state water quality board has reduced its $2.3-million fine against the city of Thousand Oaks by about $200,000 for a 1998 sewage spill, but city lawyers say the amount defies a court order to reconsider the hefty penalty.

City Atty. Mark Sellers said he will recommend the City Council appeal last week's decision by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, which levied the fine after a pipeline rupture sent 86 million gallons of sewage gushing into streams and the Pacific Ocean during an El Nino storm.

"The water board is saying, 'We don't care what natural disaster occurs, you guys are paying for it,' " Sellers said. "Does that mean the ratepayers of Thousand Oaks will have to pay for all the future acts of God that occur?"

The reduction was based on a ruling in December by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, who found that evidence presented in court by the water quality board did not justify the $2.3-million fine and ordered the agency to reconsider the sum.

The city had appealed the original fine imposed by the board in 1998.

The water board reviewed all the evidence at its Oct. 24 meeting, taking into account Janavs' ruling and the city's ability to pay the penalty, said Stephen Cain, a spokesman for the agency.

"The board isn't interested in bankrupting Thousand Oaks," Cain said. "This penalty was appropriate for the type and size of the spillage. It was a very serious violation and the evidence shows it could have been avoided. It would be unfair to all the cities dinged by us for Thousand Oaks to get off the hook."

The pipe failure came nearly two years after a city public works study determined the three-mile pipeline that traverses a deep canyon needed to be replaced and suggested homeowners be assessed an extra $5.20 a month for repairs.

But Sellers said that even if the city had voted for the fee increase, the replacement would not have been completed before the 1998 flooding. The $20-million project required an environmental impact report and the approval of various regulatory agencies, including the state Department of Fish and Game, he said.

The City Council agreed to the repairs after the spill, and the project was completed about six months ago, Sellers said.

The rupture occurred at the height of a historic El Nino weather pattern that pounded Southern California with storms for nearly a month and overwhelmed the worn sewer line, which spilled its contents into Conejo Creek.

The contaminated water coursed through a creek in Camarillo and farmland near Oxnard before dumping into the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu.

Sellers said the board's small reduction fails to recognize the spill was caused by a rare natural disaster over which the city had no control.

"This wasn't a meaningful reduction and it wasn't consistent with the evidence," he said. "We showed that a wall of water that had never been seen before in the recorded documentation of that creek had occurred in that canyon."

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