Did ‘Congressman Sewage’ Save Billions? Fact Check

Did ‘Congressman Sewage’ Save Billions? Fact Check

Photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego's major sewage treatment plant in Point Loma lacks the space needed to expand and upgrade.

 

Image: Mostly TrueStatement: “My first bill in Congress saved San Diego taxpayers, you guys, over $3 billion,” Bob Filner, a mayoral candidate, said at a debate Aug. 14.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: On the mayoral campaign trail, San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio tries to remind voters time and again that he’s the one with the record of saving taxpayers money.

At a debate in August, DeMaio’s opponent, Congressman Bob Filner, was having none of it:

My first bill in Congress saved San Diego taxpayers, you guys, over $3 billion. He takes credit, I don’t know, for $150 million. You’re a piker on this tax savings. I got a waiver for the sewage treatment plant at Point Loma that still exists today that saved us $3 billion.

We wanted to check Filner’s claim of saving $3 billion with his first bill, an enormous sum that would burnish his record in Washington, D.C.

Filner had his Ocean Pollution Reduction Act signed into law in January 1994 during his first term in Congress. The law addressed a San Diego-specific problem.

At least as far back as the 1980s, the city had a dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, its major sewage facility.

The plant didn’t — and still doesn’t — meet federal pollution standards. When Filner entered Congress in 1993, the EPA was threatening to force the city to upgrade its sewage treatment process before it pumped millions of gallons of wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

The upgrade’s estimated price tag at the time? Three billion dollars.

San Diego had missed a federal deadline to apply for a waiver to EPA rules. So special legislation — Filner’s bill — was needed to give the city another opportunity. Filner and other federal lawmakers from San Diego and California pushed aggressively.

The EPA granted San Diego a waiver 18 months after the bill passed. Filner dubbed himself “Congressman Sewage” for his efforts.

But the situation isn’t as simple as Filner makes it sound.

Filner’s bill led to a temporary waiver of federal pollution rules, not a permanent one. And the city remains in negotiations with the EPA over how it handles sewage. San Diego is on its third waiver and is up for renewal again in 2015. That process is expected to require the city recycle more of its sewage than it does today.

Cost estimates for upgrading the Point Loma plant have dropped from $3 billion to $1.2 billion in part because of other improvements to San Diego’s wastewater system. The price tag could go even lower, to $710 million, if the city fully implements the sewage recycling strategy.

Our definition of a Mostly True statement is one that’s accurate, but has an important nuance. It fits here.

Filner’s bill was a milestone in San Diego’s decades-long sewage treatment saga. It helped spare the city an estimated $3 billion upgrade at the plant in the mid-1990s. But the bill didn’t resolve San Diego’s sewage problem nor did it absolve the city of expenses related to it. Both are significant issues to consider when evaluating his claim.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

You can also e-mail new Fact Check suggestions to factcheck@voiceofsandiego.org. What claim should we explore next?

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects.

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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10 comments
Clif Williams
Clif Williams subscriber

Jim Jones, you are incorrect. San Diego was legally prohibited from even seeking a waiver once the City had let the time period for application expire. Only Congressman Filner's legislation allowed the City back in the process. His legislation cured a massive mistake by the City, and he should receive praise for getting that done. Once allowed back into the process, it took a lot of work from SIO and an extensive monitoring plan to get and keep those waivers.

cwilliams
cwilliams

Jim Jones, you are incorrect. San Diego was legally prohibited from even seeking a waiver once the City had let the time period for application expire. Only Congressman Filner's legislation allowed the City back in the process. His legislation cured a massive mistake by the City, and he should receive praise for getting that done. Once allowed back into the process, it took a lot of work from SIO and an extensive monitoring plan to get and keep those waivers.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

That isn't a fact, nor would it cost $3 billion to add secondary ponds by seawalling them in at the point loma location, the $3 billion was a massively inflated, made up number based on rebuilding the entire system and putting the treatment plant somewhere else, which is clearly not necessary.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

That isn't a fact, nor would it cost $3 billion to add secondary ponds by seawalling them in at the point loma location, the $3 billion was a massively inflated, made up number based on rebuilding the entire system and putting the treatment plant somewhere else, which is clearly not necessary.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Also it wouldn't cost $3 billion, all we need is to lagoon a section of the kelp beds with a seawall for secondary treatment. That would have been a lot easier to get done in 1994 than today, with the "toilet to tap" people now involved. Filners kicking the can down the road may have cost us dearly.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Also it wouldn't cost $3 billion, all we need is to lagoon a section of the kelp beds with a seawall for secondary treatment. That would have been a lot easier to get done in 1994 than today, with the "toilet to tap" people now involved. Filners kicking the can down the road may have cost us dearly.

Gary Page
Gary Page subscriber

I remember this issue well. The fact is that the EPA regulations were established mostly for river, lake and bay discharge. The City monitors the outflow constantly and the fact is that there has not, to my knowledge, ever been any evidence that the City's sewage outflow has had detrimental environmental effects. Most all the City's problems have occurred because of broken sewer lines sending sewage directly into the water without treatment and close to shore, unlike the city's sewage system which removes about 90% of solids and releases effluent about a mile offshore into deep water, if my memory is correct.

theprogressiveanalyst
theprogressiveanalyst

I remember this issue well. The fact is that the EPA regulations were established mostly for river, lake and bay discharge. The City monitors the outflow constantly and the fact is that there has not, to my knowledge, ever been any evidence that the City's sewage outflow has had detrimental environmental effects. Most all the City's problems have occurred because of broken sewer lines sending sewage directly into the water without treatment and close to shore, unlike the city's sewage system which removes about 90% of solids and releases effluent about a mile offshore into deep water, if my memory is correct.

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage subscribermember

Has there been ‘‘a reduction in the quantity of suspended solids discharged by the applicant into the marine environment during the period of the modification?"

La Playa Heritage
La Playa Heritage

Has there been ‘‘a reduction in the quantity of suspended solids discharged by the applicant into the marine environment during the period of the modification?"