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O.C. May Seek Shield Against Water Lawsuits

Sewage: As treatment plants are being built, sanitation district wants protection against any claims that Clean Water Act is being violated.

September 27, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO and SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Orange County Sanitation District is considering a controversial legal strategy aimed at protecting the agency against lawsuits as it moves to fully treat sewage dumped into the ocean.

Under the plan, discussed by the district board Wednesday night, the Environmental Protection Agency would preemptively file suit against the district, alleging violation of federal clean water laws. The agencies would ask a federal judge to issue a consent decree, which would make it more difficult for environmentalists to successfully sue the district for violating the Clean Water Act.

District officials said the protection is needed as it moves to improve ocean water quality. But critics said it's an unnecessary action and that the district should focus on improving treatment facilities as soon as possible.

Currently, the district provides only partial treatment to the sewage it dumps off the Huntington Beach coast. The level of treatment is less than most sanitation districts perform and is allowed because the agency received a special waiver from the EPA.

This summer, the district voted not to seek an extension of the waiver and instead moved to fully treat the sewage. But such a conversion will take up to 11 years and cost as much as $430 million. Without the waiver, officials said, they need protection against possible fines and lawsuits while treatment plants are built.

"We think this is the most protective and the best mechanism because the district is [moving to fuller treatment] voluntarily," said Janet Y. Hashimoto, chief of monitoring and assessment at the EPA's San Francisco office.

EPA officials discussed the strategy with district directors Wednesday during a private meeting. District director Debbie Cook, mayor of Huntington Beach, criticized the meeting, saying government agencies cannot meet in secret with potential litigants.

She also expressed concern over another proposal: seeking an amendment to the Clean Water Act that would bar future fines against the district.

Cook said the district doesn't need these legal protections. "We should just move ahead to reach [fuller] treatment as soon as possible," she said.

Some environmentalists agree.

"The environmental community spoke with one voice about its willingness to accept a substantial period of time for [the sanitation district] to accomplish the upgrade," said David Beckman, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.

The district serves more than 2.7 million customers in central and northern Orange County. It discharges 243 million gallons of moderately treated sewage into the ocean daily. The waiver allows for half of that sewage to receive two levels of treatment; the other half gets primary treatment.

Consent decrees have been used by other sanitation districts, including L.A. agencies, trying to upgrade sewage treatment.

The district is likely to get some legal protection from Sacramento in the form of a state law.

The bill by Assemblymen Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) and Bill Campbell (R-Villa Park) exempts the district from fines as long as it acts in good faith to move toward full sewage treatment by 2013.

The bill passed the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Gray Davis' signature.

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