For months, negotiations have dragged on as officials with the State Water Resources Control Board and the South County’s wastewater treatment plant debated how much sewage spilled into an Oceano neighborhood during heavy storms a year and a half ago.
The two sides recently hit an impasse, unable to agree on the volume of the spill and other factors.
In the next few weeks, the state water board plans to issue a formal complaint against the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District that will include what state officials believe was the volume of the spill and the amount of a fine to be levied on the district, spokesman Tim Moran said.
After that, a hearing will likely be held in September before the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, Moran said. There, legal staff with the state water board will present their case, the district staff can argue its points, and the regional board will issue a decision.
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The sanitation district has an option to appeal the decision to the state board, and litigation is always a final option, district legal counsel Michael Seitz said. He said the district has also retained a Sacramento-based attorney who specializes in water quality regulation and litigation.
“We intend to vigorously defend this,” Seitz said.
The end result could impact the 38,000 residents in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano who are served by the treatment plant. They could end up footing the bill through rate increases if the district can’t pay the fine by delaying capital improvement projects.
The state water code allows fines of up to $10 per gallon for a spill. A civil penalty of up to $1,000 per day can also be levied if required information is not furnished or is falsified.
District staff has estimated that 384,000 gallons of sewage spilled after floodwater flowed into the wastewater treatment plant and caused an electrical short that shut down four influent pumps about 10:30 a.m. Dec. 19, 2010.
But the original estimate of the sewage spill was much higher. An analysis by the plant superintendent, which assumed the “worst-case conditions,” put the spill amount at 1.8 million gallons to 2.3 million gallons.
That number was later reduced after staff analyzed data recorded during the spill, reviewed sewage line storage capacity and interviewed local residents.
Moran said he couldn’t comment on how different the state board’s conclusion is from the sanitation district’s estimates.
District board members have also reached out to state representatives for support.
Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, wrote a letter to the state water board in January expressing concern that penalties against the sanitation district could threaten its fiscal health and ability to upgrade facilities.
“I believe that the goal of the investigation should be to establish concrete facts to ensure that similar incidents can be avoided, rather than as a means of imposing the maximum penalties,” Achadjian wrote.