A state water board voted to issue a $1.1 million fine against the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District for a massive sewage spill that occurred nearly two years ago.
The penalty was levied after the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board found that the South County wastewater treatment plant was not adequately protected from a storm that pounded the area and led to the spill.
The board rejected the sanitation district’s arguments that factors leading to the sewage spill — namely, the storm, an electrical short and an inadvertently closed valve — were unintentional and beyond the district’s control. “The key factor that caused the sewer overflow was the lack of protection from the storm event, a factor within control of the discharger,” the regional board’s order states.
The board also determined the district failed to properly maintain an emergency pump by keeping an effluent valve closed, which caused sewage to back up into the plant’s collection system and overflow.
The sanitation district board met in closed session Wednesday night and voted 2-1 to appeal the regional board’s decision to the State Water Board. Board member Matt Guerrero dissented. The appeal must be filed within 30 days.
If the district’s appeal fails, it’s unclear at this time whether the district would try to pass the cost of the fine onto ratepayers through increased sewer rates.
The regional board only allowed one public comment before it met in closed session Wednesday. Bill Nicolls, a Grover Beach councilman who sits on the sanitation district board, was allowed to speak as a resident and district ratepayer.
He urged the regional water board to be “fair and equitable” in its decision, adding “any substantial fine that comes from this situation will adversely affect the ratepayers.”
The wastewater treatment facility, constructed in 1965, ser ves about 38,000 residents in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano. John Wallace, of San Luis Obispo-based Wallace Group, has served as the district’s administrator since 1986.
The spill happened Dec. 19, 2010, when floodwater flowed into the treatment plant and caused an electrical short that shut down four influent pumps about 10:30 a.m.
Estimates of the spill volume later ranged from about 400,000 gallons to 3 million gallons. The regional water board on Wednesday estimated that 674,400 gallons spilled.
Sanitation district officials certified six sewer backups where untreated sewage was discharged inside private homes. State water board prosecutors, who had proposed a more than $1.3 million fine against the district, had argued the spill was caused by human error, including a lack of preventative maintenance at the plant.
They said the district could have prevented the spill if a project to install waterproof electrical wiring had been completed when originally proposed in 2004.
Sanitation district officials said the maintenance project would not have prevented the spill.
State water board prosecutor Julie Macedo said she was happy with the regional board’s ruling.
“I thought the board asked insightful questions” during an all-day hearing Sept. 7, she said. “I think the order reflects that.”