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Huntington Beach Off Probation Early

The city gets nearly three years taken off the penalty it received for pleading guilty to discharging pollutants from its sewer system.

October 01, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Huntington Beach, sentenced to five years' probation after pleading guilty to spewing tons of sewage from its aging downtown pipelines, has been released nearly three years early for good behavior.

For city officials, this week's announcement of the reduced sentence was welcome after a series of public relations disasters ranging from budget shortfalls to an illegally collected property tax to a summer in which beaches were routinely closed due to contaminated water.

"This is good news," said Mayor Connie Boardman, who said the city had been in the process of repairing its cracking network of sewer lines when it was placed on probation.

The city pleaded guilty in March 2001 to three misdemeanor counts of violating state water laws by knowingly discharging pollutants from the sewer system. The guilty plea was a highly unusual admission of criminal culpability by a municipality and came after a lengthy investigation by the Orange County district attorney's office, state water officials and a grand jury.

Though city officials disputed their guilt, they conceded that there was a wealth of circumstantial evidence that would have been difficult -- and expensive -- to beat in court.

Boardman, a community college instructor, said it would have taken years of staff time and "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to go to trial.

At the time that charges were filed, the city had begun repairing cracks that had shown up on a video inspection of sewer lines.

In exchange for its guilty plea, the city got the five years' probation and was ordered to cooperate with a cleanup by the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board that was already underway, city officials said.

Despite the guilty plea, Huntington Beach has disputed that it had leaked millions of gallons of sewage, as was alleged.

The city spent $200,000 on a court-ordered study, performed by the Huntington Beach-based environmental consultant Komex H2O Science. The study determined that city's groundwater was not contaminated.

City Administrator Ray Silver said that thanks to state and federal grants, the city has made approximately $6 million in sewer repairs.

An annual sewer service charge of $60 for residents and business owners was imposed to help pay for repairs.

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