Sewage plant leaders decry fine

Leaders of a South County sewage treatment plant have appealed a $1.1 million fine issued by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, nearly two years after thousands of gallons of untreated sewage mixed with floodwaters overflowed from the Oceano facility.

The South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District’s petition argues the regional board rarely supported its conclusions with evidence, imposed a penalty that’s “unreasonably high” and inconsistent with fines assessed for other spills in the state, and failed to recognize that the district can’t immediately pay such a large penalty.

Instead of a fine, the regional board should have recognized the spill happened because of a series of unforeseen events beyond the district’s control and should have acknowledged the district’s “herculean efforts to keep the treatment plant running” during the spill, the petition states.

The penalty was levied in October after the regional board found the wastewater treatment plant was not adequately protected from a storm that pounded the area and led to the spill. The sanitation district board quickly voted 2-1 to appeal the ruling to the State Water Resources Control Board.

Regional board Chairman Jeffrey Young said Thursday: “The Regional Board heard evidence from both sides, weighed that evidence objectively, deliberated and reached its conclusion. The board feels the process was fair and that the discharger was provided adequate due process. The appeal is now in the hands of the State Board."

The state water board’s Office of Chief Counsel will evaluate the sanitation district’s appeal for compliance with its petition regulations. If the petition complies, the regional water board and any interested parties can respond to it, state water board spokesman Tim Moran said.

The state water board has 270 days to review the petition once it is deemed complete. If the full board decides to review the matter, it would be considered in public session, and the district would be able to make an oral presentation.

The sanitation district would not have to pay the penalty assessed by the regional board while the appeal is pending, Moran said.

The wastewater treatment facility, constructed in 1965, serves about 38,000 residents in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.

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 estimated that 674,400 gallons spilled.

The regional board heard about 17 hours of arguments and testimony about the spill during a September hearing. At the end of it, the board rejected the sanitation district’s arguments.

“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 sanitation district disputes that preventive work — namely, a rewiring project — would have kept the spill from occurring.

“The record reflects that the spill resulted from a series of unfortunate events occurring during a severe flood event,” according to the petition.

The district also disputes that it can pay the penalty. Doing so would leave the district in the red, officials said, and any rate increase the board might try to pass would be subject to rate-payer approval.

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