San Diego's clean water wars:
reports from the front lines

by Lori Saldaña
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 Barbara?

Correction, please

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.