Paso Robles fined nearly $500,000 for wastewater plant permit violations

One of the new circular clarifiers at the Paso Robles sewage treatment plant, as pictured in May 2015.
One of the new circular clarifiers at the Paso Robles sewage treatment plant, as pictured in May 2015. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on Friday slapped Paso Robles with about $500,000 in fines for permit violations related to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

The city is permitted to discharge water from its treatment plant into the Salinas River, but that water can contain only certain amounts of pollutants. Water from the Paso Robles treatment plant exceeded limits established in a 2011 permit 173 times between Oct. 3, 2013, and June 27, 2016, said Thea Tryon, enforcement coordinator for the Central Coast water board.

The city was charged $3,000 for each violation, which added up to $495,000 with deductions taken out for various factors, including compliance and whether the violations were avoidable or not, Tryon said.

“The good news is, their system is doing great now,” she said.

Dick McKinley, the city’s public works director, said the violations were the result of transitioning from a nearly 60-year-old treatment plant to a modern one. Paso Robles broke ground on the $49.6 million plant — located on the same site as the old plant — in 2013, and it began operating in spring 2015.

The violations that occurred after the new plant began operating were mostly part of the process of getting the new facility up and running, McKinley said. Violations can still occur whenever there are “hiccups” or something goes wrong at the plant, he said.

“This was not a surprise to us,” McKinley said. “It was not a surprise to the water board.”

Prior to the new plant’s construction, salts, nitrates and disinfection byproducts were being released into the Salinas River along with the discharged water, prompting fines and causing problems for fish and other wildlife in the area.

The variation between the new plant and the old is like “the difference between a tricycle and a Ferrari,” McKinley said.

Part of the money needed to pay the fines was budgeted into the wastewater fund and part will come from reserves, McKinley said.

More than half of the fine money — $255,000 — will go toward supplemental environmental projects related to the Paso Robles groundwater basin, according to a water board news release. McKinley said some of this money will fund the creation of a template for groundwater sustainability plans in the Paso basin. The other money will go to the water board’s cleanup and abatement account.

“This is why we spent 40-something-million building a new plant,” McKinley said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27