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San Diego Gets OK to Give Sewage Partial Treatment

Environment: State officials and the EPA allow the ongoing practice of pumping partly treated effluent into the sea. Surfrider Foundation may sue.


SAN DIEGO — With the city's sewage treatment plant as a backdrop, Mayor Dick Murphy on Friday announced the latest victory in the city's decades-long fight to continue pumping sewage that is only partly treated into the ocean.

"Today's [ceremony] marks a victory for both the environment and San Diego ratepayers," said Murphy.

The ceremony was possible because the state Coastal Commission this week backed down from an earlier decision that could have forced San Diego to upgrade its Point Loma treatment plant to scrub a higher percentage of contaminants from the 180 million gallons of treated sewage dumped daily about 4.5 miles from the coast.

San Diego officials had complained that the commission's April decision could have forced the city to spend $4 billion for improvements that they contend are not needed. Officials from the Davis administration had sided with San Diego, saying the commission had overstepped its legal authority.

After the Coastal Commission reversal this week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency moved to give the city a five-year renewal of its waiver from the federal Clean Water Act.

Wayne Nastri, the agency's administrator for its Pacific Southwest region, said scientific studies have shown that the sewage will not harm the ocean environment. Nastri praised the city for "investing in a strong [sewage] monitoring program and a good operating record at the Point Loma plant."

But officials of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation, who did not attend the ceremony at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, said they are considering a lawsuit to force the city to reduce the level of contaminants being released.

"What the city, and now EPA, is saying is: 'Let's wait until we can show there is environmental damage before we do anything,' " said foundation attorney Marco Gonzalez. "Why do we have to wait to act? I'll do anything necessary to ensure that my kids get cleaner water to swim in than today."

The issue of the city's noncompliance with federal and state clean water acts has been a political and legal controversy since before then-Mayor Pete Wilson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1982.

In the early 1990s, the city and the federal government fought a protracted legal battle over the EPA's insistence that the city improve the Point Loma plant. After researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography supported the city's contention that the environment was not being damaged, a federal judge overruled the EPA.

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