San Diego water wars:
temporary truce or lasting peace?
egular readers of the Earth Times will be familiar with
the legal battles between the city of San Diego and local environmental
groups over sewage treatment. Now, there appears to be major progress toward
the resolution of two major issues: the International Border Sewage Treatment
Plant, and the City's request for an exemption from provisions of the Clean
Water Act for the Pt. Loma plant.
Progress in treatment plant processes accomplishes Sierra Club's objectives,
Treatment plant treat
Federal Judge Napoleon Jones has approved a legal agreement to a lawsuit
concerning the planned International Border Sewage Treatment Plant. The
lawsuit against the U.S. Government was filed in June of 1994 by the Sierra
Club, the Surfrider Foundation and Chaparral Greens. The suit did not attempt
to halt or stall the project, but asked that supplemental environmental
studies be done while the early work on sewage treatment improvements is
The settlement reached by the parties and approved by
the Court commits the U.S. Government to studying the issues raised in the
law suit before key decisions are made, but on a schedule that allows project
work to continue. The Government agreed to complete engineering and environmental
studies to address issues of public safety associated with the planned treatment
plant and the potential development of a cost-saving ponding system as an
alternative treatment of raw sewage originating in Mexico.
Among the issues that will be addressed in the federal
studies are: 1) how the discharge from the planned treatment plant will
be handled prior to the completion of the proposed ocean outfall; 2) what
affect the absence of any Mexican pretreatment for toxics removal will have
on the operation of the plant, and the impact on the environment and human
health; and 3) the potential that a ponding treatment system will better
handle the toxics problem and at a cost savings previously estimated at
Lori Saldaña, an Executive Committee member of
the San Diego Sierra Club, commented, "The settlement totally confirms
the concerns the Sierra Club raised in the lawsuit and provides a speedy
way to address them. The Government has agreed to complete all the reviews
we asked for regarding unaddressed health aspects for the project. And the
government has agreed to assess the potential that there are better approaches
to the proposed project that can both save the taxpayers hundreds of millions
of dollars and better protect the health of citizens in the South Bay."
Waiver, no exemption
Meanwhile, the EPA and California Regional Water Quality Control Board have
issued a draft sewage treatment permit for San Diego signaling approval
for the City's application for a waiver from the secondary treatment requirements
of the federal Clean Water Act for the Pt. Loma treatment plant. After public
hearings, the waiver will be finalized, saving the citizens of San Diego
at least $1 billion while assuring a high level of ocean protection.
The San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, which was
a party to the lawsuit that successfully forced the City to upgrade its
sewage treatment system, immediately endorsed the draft EPA waiver permit.
The pending approval of the waiver application makes the City's previous
proposal to permanently exempt San Diego from federal Clean Water Act standards
totally unnecessary and unwise.
The waiver avoids the need for a costly upgrade of the
City's sewage treatment to a secondary level. The waiver retains tough federal
standards and provides for periodic, full public review of the performance
of the sewage treatment program. The so-called "exemption" would
eliminate federal standards and the requirement for continuing public review.
The exemption has passed the U.S. House but faces strong opposition and
an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate.
"The waiver provides the promised savings of the
exemption proponents without the risks the permanent exemption would create
for San Diego citizens, our environment and for our economy which depends
on the certainty of a clean ocean," Saldaña noted. "The
City's poor record in sewage treatment doesn't create trust in their ability
to prevent pollution-without clear federal standards and full public oversight.
The City extended its sewage outfall and upgraded its treatment process
to eliminate damage to the kelp beds and health risks to divers and surfers
ONLY in response to legal action to enforce federal standards. The waiver
provides a cost-effective solution to one important part of San Diego's
pollution problems while ensuring clear federal standards and full, continuing