Editorial

Water boards need power to suspend punitive fines

Policy requiring fines leaves Paso Robles ratepayers soaked

letters@thetribunenews.comOctober 14, 2013 

The city of Paso Robles is doing the right thing in undertaking an extensive upgrade of its aging and obsolete sewer plant, which has been responsible for spewing pollutants into the Salinas River.

The new plant promises to be a model of sustainability, technology and ingenuity.

Some highlights:

• It will convert methane gas — which is generally burned off at sewer plants — into energy, reducing the plant’s utility bills by about 40 percent.

• It will use one of the natural sulfur springs on the site to channel hot water into the operations building, so that offices and other workspace will get free radiant floor heating.

• As much material as possible from the old plant and surrounding facilities will be used in the new one, including redwood from an old barn on the site.

The plant upgrade — which will cost nearly $50 million — also will bring Paso into compliance with wastewater discharge regulations, which the city has been violating for more than a decade.

As a result of those violations, the state has been imposing mandatory fines of $6,000 to $9,000 per month. The city already has paid $156,000 in fines — $69,000 of which went toward local water quality projects, including the Salinas River corridor management plan.

According to the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the city still has 97 outstanding violations, for which it owes almost $300,000. On top of that, the fines will continue to stack up until the new plant is online.

State law permits up to 50 percent of that money to go toward “supplemental environmental projects.” However, it cannot be used to defray the cost of the sewer project itself — even though that’s the very thing that will correct the problem. (An exception can be made for small communities that have a certain percentage of lowincome residents, but Paso Robles doesn’t meet those requirements.)

We agree that mandatory minimum fines are important tools to encourage compliance and protect water quality, and we fully support that state’s efforts to crack down on polluters.

But we believe that regulators should have the leeway to suspend fines once a violator has started work on a remedial project — or allow at least a portion of the penalty to go directly to the project.

Granted, the $300,000 that Paso Robles owes is a miniscule amount compared to the nearly $50 million price tag for the sewer project. But this is a matter of principle: With ratepayers already picking up a sizeable tab for anew plant, the state should at least give them a break on fines.

Under the law, though, regional water boards don’t have the ability to suspend fines, and challenges to that law have so far been unsuccessful.

It may be too late for Paso Robles, but we strongly urge state officials — both in the Legislature and the state Water Resources Control Board — to take another look at a punitive policy that winds up soaking the ratepayers.

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