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Santa Paula to pay smaller fine under deal

A judge reduces the penalty for wastewater violations from millions to $350,000. The city will spend the saved money on a treatment plant.

September 28, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge has approved a deal allowing Santa Paula to pay the state a reduced fine for violations of its wastewater permit and to spend the millions saved on building a new treatment plant.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the semirural town of 29,000 would have faced bankruptcy if the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board had insisted on payment of more than $8.66 million in fines the city racked up through March. Instead, the board negotiated a deal to accept a penalty of $350,000, along with attorney fees and staff costs of more than $77,000.

"Kudos to the regional board for understanding the bigger picture," Bobkiewicz said. "We're really excited, because I don't have $8.6 million. Our general fund is about $11 million, so that's about two-thirds of the annual budget."

Earlier this week, Ventura County Superior Court Judge David W. Long approved the final agreement, which sets deadlines for the city to get a new treatment plant operating by Dec. 15, 2010, and imposes fees -- up to $5,000 per instance -- for subsequent violations.

Water officials were persuaded by Santa Paula's ongoing efforts to replace its aging wastewater treatment plant, which opened in 1939 and uses an old-style, open-air method for breaking down waste with bacteria. It was not designed to tackle nitrates and it cannot keep chlorides within acceptable limits. From January 2000 to March of this year, the plant accumulated nearly 2,900 water-quality violations issued by the board.

"We're very pleased the courts have approved this," said Fran Diamond, chairwoman of the water board. "We feel it will be extremely beneficial to water quality in the city. It's a win-win situation that will provide improved water quality from a state-of-the-art plant."

Two months ago, the city spent $3 million to buy land for a treatment plant and now it is seeking a private company to design, finance, build and operate the plant, which is expected to cost nearly $60 million.

The settlement with the state requires that the city begin construction on a new plant by July and that the plant, related percolation ponds and additional environmental work be completed by September 2010.

"We want to make sure that however we do it, it's in the most economical way possible so as not to have a negative impact on our residents," Bobkiewicz said.

Residential sewer rates rose from $11.35 a month in 2002 to $42.68 last year to help pay for the new plant. Bobkiewicz said he expects monthly rates "in the $60 range" once the plant opens.

greg.griggs@latimes.com

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