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Accord OK'd in Conejo Sewage Spill

Thousand Oaks agrees to pay $800,000 to settle a suit over a broken line in 1998 that dumped millions of gallons of effluent into waterways.

June 04, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Thousand Oaks has agreed to pay $800,000 to settle a lawsuit with state regulators over a 1998 sewer line break that dumped 86 million gallons of wastewater into streams, creeks and the Pacific Ocean.

Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Bill-de la Pena said the settlement would end a long-standing threat of a multimillion-dollar fine against the city by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

She said the settlement money could be used for water quality projects in the Calleguas Creek and Conejo Valley watersheds.

"This is a wonderful deal," said Bill-de la Pena, who helped negotiate the agreement. "We're hopeful most of the money would be spent in Thousand Oaks, but generally it would be in the Southern California area."

Under terms of the settlement reached last week, the city, which spent about $1 million in legal fees, admits no liability.

The state water board originally levied a $2.3-million fine against Thousand Oaks for the Feb. 3, 1998, spill, saying it had the right to assess penalties of up to $10 for each gallon spilled, or nearly $859 million.

The city sued and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs in December 2001 invalidated the fine. The judge agreed with the city that the intensity of winter storms was unanticipated and forced a sewer line to break near the city's Hill Canyon wastewater treatment plant.

The release of untreated sewage went on for 12 days until the city was able to make emergency repairs. The spill soiled creeks and ocean areas and forced 29 miles of beaches to temporarily close.

Thousand Oaks subsequently spent nearly $2 million on programs to repair the local ecosystem and create six acres of wetlands, the largest man-made wetlands in Ventura County, said Don Nelson, public works director.

The state water board reduced its fine to $2.14 million in October 2002, a figure Janavs ruled in May 2003 was still too high. She ordered the board to reconsider the penalty. Since then, the city and the board had been in talks to settle the matter.

Michael Lauffer, staff counsel for the board, said the parties had worked diligently on the agreement since last summer.

"Both sides were willing to make concessions," he said. "This settlement will still send a strong message to dischargers that they need to do everything they can to protect water quality."

While the settlement amount is about one-third of the original fine, Lauffer said the one-time payment was one of the largest ever imposed by the state water board.

Thousand Oaks spent $23.5 million to replace the broken pipeline, the first phase of a $100-million modernization of the Hill Canyon plant. The repairs had been discussed for years and were scheduled to begin in the summer of 1998.

Nelson said about $90 million had been spent to date and that the final phase should be completed next year.

The proposed settlement agreement is open for public comment through June 28. After both sides have had 10 days to respond, Lauffer said the parties intend to seek a July court hearing to request Janavs to approve the settlement.

Mayor Bob Wilson Sr. said the city had budgeted $1 million to settle its dispute with the water board and was prepared to write a check within 30 days after the judge makes her final ruling.

"I don't like to pay $800,000 to anybody, especially for something we didn't think was avoidable," he said. "Certainly the city has to take responsibility.... I'm OK with the settlement. It's behind us and this won't happen again."

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A copy of the agreement is available for public review at the regional water board office in Los Angeles. Written comments should be addressed to: Executive Officer (ATTN: Thousand Oaks Enforcement), Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, 320 W. 4th St., Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90013.

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