San Diego's clean water wars:
by Lori Saldaña
reports from the front lines
794 - the proposed bill that would
exempt San Diego's Pt. Loma Treatment Plant from the federal Clean Water
Act - has been making its circuitous and occasionally fractious way through
Congress over the last few weeks.
In a boost for opponents of the bill, HR 794 was not
presented to the House on March 7 as part of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's
first-ever "Corrections Day" (which has been rescheduled for April).
But despite a pledge by the San Diego Congressional delegation to keep California
Senator Barbara Boxer informed of the bill's progress through the House
(Boxer opposes the bill), the Committee on Public Works and Transportation
convened a meeting in mid-March to discuss HR 794 - and no one told Senator
Boxer or her staff.
Remarkably, Dave Schlesinger - Director of San Diego's
Metropolitan Wastewater Department - had been told about the meeting and
was in attendance that afternoon. And when a member of the Los Angeles Congressional
delegation indicated he would support the exemption bill - especially if
their city could also get an exemption - Mr. Schlesinger reportedly offered
to help them in their efforts.
We have to ask: If the two largest coastal cities in
Southern California are both exempted from the Clean Water Act, what impact
will this have on ocean water quality from the US-Mexico border to Santa
Rep. Bob Filner sits on the Public Works and Transportation
Committee and has been attempting to add an amendment to HR-794 that would
require corrective actions should the city's Ocean Monitoring Program find
that the Pt. Loma plant is violating local water quality discharge standards.
This new language is an apparent attempt to mollify critics of the bill,
and its addition has earned the tentative approval of researchers at Scripps
Institution of Oceanography.
Dr. Mia Tegner, a researcher at Scripps, originally
was opposed to HR-794. But she has now indicated that the addition of this
new language would satisfy her concerns. (Dr. Tegner has been consulting
with the city's Metropolitan Wastewater Department as they develop the application
for a waiver from the Clean Water Act.)
At present, HR-794 states that "any municipal treatment
facility employing chemically enhanced primary treatment that discharges
via an ocean outfall into an open marine environment over 4.0 miles off-shore
into a depth exceeding 300 feet and is in compliance with all local and
State receiving body water quality standards shall be deemed the equivalent
of secondary treatment." This language does not preclude another city
from extending its outfall and adding chemical treatment to its existing
facilities in an attempt to gain an exemption. So, even with the proposed
amendment, a city such as Los Angeles could take those actions after the
bill has passed and qualify.
Meanwhile, employees in the Metropolitan Wastewater
Department have been working on the city's waiver application since early
this year, and for several months have refused to release any copies of
the draft document. After repeated requests by the Sierra Club - which had
supported the city's controversial request to apply for the waiver - they
agreed to send one copy to Robert Simmons, attorney for the Sierra Club.
(At this writing he is awaiting delivery of the report.)
And in a related development...
At the February 9 meeting of the Regional Water Quality
Control Board, a curious discussion about the proposed International Treatment
Plant (ITP) took place. It was curious because no mention of the ITP appeared
on the meeting agenda. (State laws require that agendas of meetings which
involve elected and/or appointed officials be released at least a 72 hours
in advance and describe all agenda items.)
Nonetheless, Alexis Strauss, representing the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), and Dave Schlesinger from the City of San Diego,
told the Board that the advanced primary phase of the ITP was scheduled
to go on-line by the end of 1996, but the outfall would not be completed
until 1998. Schlesinger then argued that there was "no reason for the
plant to stand idle for one day" once it was operational, and both
he and Strauss suggested that interim discharge into the Tijuana River would
be a feasible solution.
At this point, Regional Board Vice Chairman Gary Arant
asked, "So it's better to capture, treat and release [the wastewater]
into the estuary?" Ms. Strauss replied, "I'm convinced of that."
Members of the Board then expressed their desire to "stand shoulder
to shoulder" with the EPA and reminded one another that, due to the
"unique" nature of this plant, it will mean different treatment
and discharge regulations will have to be applied.
Arant closed by saying "We need an agreement...
Community groups will see we don't require this plant to operate at the
same levels [as other treatment facilities]. We need an MOA [memorandum
of agreement] with the EPA and this board. We need the help of the federal
government." In other words, they need to ensure they don't wind up
all alone, issuing a permit for a plant that many believe will operate in
violation of the Clean Water Act.
"I don't remember"
A few days later, Board counsel John Richards was asked
why he allowed a non-agenda item to be discussed during the meeting. He
replied that "In the mind of the Regional Water Quality Board, they
were talking about the relationship between the EPA and the Regional Board,
who does the permitting and who sets the standards." However, that
wasn't part of the agenda either.
Richards then mentioned agenda Item 12, which referred
to ocean discharges from the city of San Diego. But the wastewater to be
discharged from the ITP will come from Tijuana. When pressed to explain
exactly how the public was supposed to know that a discussion about the
ITP would take place February 9, Richards replied, "At this point,
I don't really remember."
The wastewater wars are heating up. Stay tuned.
Lori Saldaña, a regular contributor to the Earth Times, is
a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation
and environmental issues, and an environmental activist.