South County sewer district faces big fine for Oceano spill

State might impose $1.4 million penalty on South County agency for 2010 incident

dsneed@thetribunenews.comJune 20, 2012 

The sewer district that serves much of the South County faces nearly $1.4 million in state fines for a December 2010 sewage spill.

The South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District has vowed to fight the proposed fines. A hearing before the state’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is set for Sept. 6.

A powerful winter storm on Dec. 19, 2010, caused a pump station in Oceano to flood, and sewage spilled into Meadow Creek, Arroyo Grande Creek, Oceano Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.

State water officials estimate more than 1.1 million gallons of sewage spilled. Officials with the sanitation district say 400,000 gallons is a more accurate estimate of the amount spilled.

The district serves some 38,000 customers in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.

An investigation concluded that the spill was caused by a short circuit in a control switch. State water officials say the district knew an accident like this was possible and did not take steps to prevent it.

“The cause of the spill was not wholly weather-related,” said Julie Macedo, a lawyer in the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Enforcement. “There was inadequate preparation and response by the district, in addition to reporting issues.”

The sanitation district contends the fine is excessive because the heavy rains diluted the sewage to nearly harmless levels.

Fish populations in Arroyo Grande Creek were not harmed, and no one filed a claim against the district as a result of the spill, said Michael Seitz, attorney for the sanitation district.

“We feel comfortable that there was no evidence to support significant environmental effect due to this spill,” he said. “We feel we have a strong case.”

The district cannot afford a fine of more than $1.3 million and would have to raise rates an unspecified amount and defer some planned upgrades in order to pay it, Seitz said.

The water board and sanitation district tried to negotiate a settlement in the case, but negotiations ended in an impasse. The Sept. 6 hearing will be conducted like a trial, with water board staff acting as the prosecutors.

The seven members of the Regional Water Quality Control Board will decide the case. The hearing will start at 10 a.m. at the regional water board offices in San Luis Obispo.

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