Friday, June 22, 2007 | I guess we now know why Mayor Jerry Sanders delayed his planned announcement on the future of the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Facility — he was waiting for The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board to do his dirty work. In another example of public relations trumping public policy, the U-T has again proclaimed its opposition to upgrading the nation’s largest sewage treatment plant exempt from secondary treatment standards in a June 19 editorial. Unfortunately, the facts used to buttress the U-T’s arguments are wrong and typically skewed.   

With Morro Bay finalizing its plan to go from primary to tertiary treatment by 2014, Point Loma recently made news as the “last state holdout on sewage treatment law.”  In fact, of more than 16,000 sewage agencies nationally, only 30-plus facilities are exempt from secondary treatment standards — and Point Loma discharges more sewage than all of the other agencies combined.

The Union-Tribune has claimed an upgrade at Point Loma is unnecessary and overly costly — putting the price tag of going to secondary at $1.5 billion. In fact, city officials have claimed it could cost up to $1.5 billion to retrofit the facility.

“Up to” is an important caveat, as environmental groups have long claimed (and for good reason) that the city has inflated such cost estimates. Of course, this little clause is lost altogether in the U-T’s editorial, which makes the unsubstantiated claim that the cost of upgrade will be $1.5 billion, proving the adage that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes truth.

It is important to note the city has long overestimated costs at Point Loma. When Coastkeeper, Surfrider and Sierra Club challenged the 2001 waiver and prevailed, the city had claimed that costs for upgrading the facility would be over $2 billion. Environmental groups were scoffed at for suggesting that the true costs were closer to $500 million.

Yet, after completing a pilot test of secondary technologies at Point Loma in 2005, city officials acknowledged the cost would be close to our initial estimates. Even with rising construction costs in the intervening years, such an upgrade will still top out at less than $1 billion … though the figure will continue to rise the longer we wait.  

While this is still a significant cost, it is far less than the numbers being bandied around by the city and U-T.

Moreover, federal and state grants will be available to offset a large portion of these costs. If the city had upgraded Point Loma when most other sewage agencies were doing so, in the early 1980s, the federal government would likely have provided up to 70 percent or more of the funding. 

If the U-T’s editorial board was off the mark on the financial implications of the upgrade, it misses the target entirely with its unfounded assertion that we know with “scientific precision that the current sewage treatment process does not harm fish life or the marine environment.” As any scientist will tell you, it is very difficult to know for certain what does and what does not harm us — we learn every day about the impacts of previously unknown or unforeseen contaminants. 

Many scientists have said just that, including many at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which the editorial board claimed to represent. A panel of scientific experts, including those from SIO and outside peer reviewers, who evaluated the existing ocean-monitoring program, has concluded that there are far too many holes in the city’s monitoring to determine possible harm to the ocean ecosystem. Deficiencies include examining viruses, emerging contaminants such as endocrine disrupters and pharmaceuticals, deep ocean impacts, plume migration, impacts on marine mammals, and many others.

Must we wait until the damage is done before we act to protect our environment? 

Coastkeeper and other environmental groups want the best deal for San Diegans — both in cost and environmental benefit. We are on record as supporting another five-year exemption if it is conditioned on an enforceable agreement from the city that it will begin to upgrade Point Loma starting in 2013. Absent such an agreement, we will litigate the 2007 waiver, and we will win, costing the city more attorney fees and putting it at risk for a more draconian resolution than what we are proposing. 

In the past five years of meetings with the city on this issue, our position has remained remarkably consistent. Considering the trust that we believe has been built up, we were surprised to hear the mayor had scheduled a press conference to announce the city’s position on Point Loma without reaching out to consult the environmental community. At least, thanks to the U-T editorial board, we know what to expect when that press conference does occur.

Unfortunately, lack of leadership on this issue seems to be here to stay. Rather than taking a vocal position to further invest in our city’s infrastructure in a reasonable manner, officials would rather force the environmental community’s hand to win another lawsuit we would prefer not to bring.

As was the case with the sewage collection system, Regents Road Bridge, the proposed Hillel development and many others, the city continues to put itself in legal jeopardy by taking stands blatantly contrary to our federal and state environmental laws. This adds insult to injury, forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for attorney fees in addition to drawing out the costs of eventual compliance with the law.  

I hope the recent outburst by the U-T doesn’t sabotage the efforts of many groups and individuals to work in good faith to reach a resolution that safeguards our environment while protecting local residents.

Bruce Reznik is the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. Agree with him? Disagree? Send a letter.

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