Ocean water quality threats off San Diego

The new Congress provides opportunities for vested interests to circumvent hard-won environmental controls that protect our health and well-being.

by Lori Saldaña
an Diegans who love to play in the ocean will be dismayed to learn that the Point Loma treatment plant - which discharges treated wastewater just south of Ocean Beach ­p; may soon be allowed to routinely violate Clean Water Act (CWA) standards. And, through a sense of political twists and turns, these violations may be deemed legal by Congress, and allowed to continue indefinitely.
The Point Loma outfall currently discharges effluent (treated sewage) five miles offshore of San Diego; however, it has been treated only to advanced primary levels. The CWA requires all cities in the United States to treat their sewage to secondary levels before discharging it into rivers, lakes, etc. But for the last few years, San Diego has argued that these standards are unreasonable for coastal cities with deep ocean outfalls far offshore.
Finally, late last year, Rep. Bob Filner was able to pass a bill through Congress which allowed San Diego to apply for a waiver to the CWA secondary treatment standards. Currently, 49 other cities in the United States have similar waivers. Every five years these cities are required to renew this arrangement, which involves conducting periodic environmental studies to ensure the water quality is not being harmed by the wastewater discharges.
Alas, much has changed in Congress since last year. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has begun calling for an end to "stupid" environmental protection regulations. And Mayor Susan Golding, sensing an opportunity, met with the Speaker in January to complain about the waiver process. Now, with Gingrich's assistance, the city is trying to secure an exemption to the Clean Water Act.
To this end, first-year Congressman Brian Bilbray has submitted HR 794, which states that treatment plants such as Point Loma, which are using "chemically enhanced primary treatment ... in compliance with all local and State receiving body water quality standards shall be deemed the equivalent of secondary treatment."
This is a perfect example of changing the rules to meet one's lack of compliance. Moreover, no one knows who will monitor the "water quality standards" described in HR 794. At five miles offshore, the outfall is beyond the state's jurisdiction. And no periodic review or renewal of an exemption would be required, even though the volume and composition of the wastewater may change over the years as the city grows, new industries set up operations here, etc.
The city maintains that it has one of the best ocean monitoring programs in the world, and will continue evaluating the ocean near the outfall, but people still wonder: why exempt San Diego from the Clean Water Act in the first place? In 1993, 67 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into San Diego's beaches, bays and rivers. Clearly, the city needs to do a better job to clean up its act.
A local coalition of recreational, health and environmental organizations has been formed to fight this exemption. Calling itself the "San Diego Clean Water Alliance," this group's slogan is that "San Diegans deserve protection, not exemption" under the Clean Water Act. They are working on a public education campaign to let San Diegans know the potential risks of an exemption for the Pint Loma treatment plant outfall.
For more information on the alliance and exemption, contact Craig Adams at 299-1741.

Lori Saldaña, a regular contributor to the Earth Times, is a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental issues, and environmental activist.