Ocean water quality threats off San Diego
by Lori Saldaña
The new Congress provides opportunities for vested interests to circumvent
hard-won environmental controls that protect our health and well-being.
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
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
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.