San Diego water wars:
temporary truce or lasting peace?

Progress in treatment plant processes accomplishes Sierra Club's objectives, for now.

egular readers of the Earth Times will be familiar with the legal battles between the city of San Diego and local environmental groups over sewage treatment. Now, there appears to be major progress toward the resolution of two major issues: the International Border Sewage Treatment Plant, and the City's request for an exemption from provisions of the Clean Water Act for the Pt. Loma plant.

Treatment plant treat

Federal Judge Napoleon Jones has approved a legal agreement to a lawsuit concerning the planned International Border Sewage Treatment Plant. The lawsuit against the U.S. Government was filed in June of 1994 by the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation and Chaparral Greens. The suit did not attempt to halt or stall the project, but asked that supplemental environmental studies be done while the early work on sewage treatment improvements is underway.
The settlement reached by the parties and approved by the Court commits the U.S. Government to studying the issues raised in the law suit before key decisions are made, but on a schedule that allows project work to continue. The Government agreed to complete engineering and environmental studies to address issues of public safety associated with the planned treatment plant and the potential development of a cost-saving ponding system as an alternative treatment of raw sewage originating in Mexico.
Among the issues that will be addressed in the federal studies are: 1) how the discharge from the planned treatment plant will be handled prior to the completion of the proposed ocean outfall; 2) what affect the absence of any Mexican pretreatment for toxics removal will have on the operation of the plant, and the impact on the environment and human health; and 3) the potential that a ponding treatment system will better handle the toxics problem and at a cost savings previously estimated at $100 million.
Lori Saldaña, an Executive Committee member of the San Diego Sierra Club, commented, "The settlement totally confirms the concerns the Sierra Club raised in the lawsuit and provides a speedy way to address them. The Government has agreed to complete all the reviews we asked for regarding unaddressed health aspects for the project. And the government has agreed to assess the potential that there are better approaches to the proposed project that can both save the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and better protect the health of citizens in the South Bay."

Waiver, no exemption

Meanwhile, the EPA and California Regional Water Quality Control Board have issued a draft sewage treatment permit for San Diego signaling approval for the City's application for a waiver from the secondary treatment requirements of the federal Clean Water Act for the Pt. Loma treatment plant. After public hearings, the waiver will be finalized, saving the citizens of San Diego at least $1 billion while assuring a high level of ocean protection.
The San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, which was a party to the lawsuit that successfully forced the City to upgrade its sewage treatment system, immediately endorsed the draft EPA waiver permit.
The pending approval of the waiver application makes the City's previous proposal to permanently exempt San Diego from federal Clean Water Act standards totally unnecessary and unwise.
The waiver avoids the need for a costly upgrade of the City's sewage treatment to a secondary level. The waiver retains tough federal standards and provides for periodic, full public review of the performance of the sewage treatment program. The so-called "exemption" would eliminate federal standards and the requirement for continuing public review. The exemption has passed the U.S. House but faces strong opposition and an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate.
"The waiver provides the promised savings of the exemption proponents without the risks the permanent exemption would create for San Diego citizens, our environment and for our economy which depends on the certainty of a clean ocean," Saldaña noted. "The City's poor record in sewage treatment doesn't create trust in their ability to prevent pollution-without clear federal standards and full public oversight. The City extended its sewage outfall and upgraded its treatment process to eliminate damage to the kelp beds and health risks to divers and surfers ONLY in response to legal action to enforce federal standards. The waiver provides a cost-effective solution to one important part of San Diego's pollution problems while ensuring clear federal standards and full, continuing public review."