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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 | With an academic analysis in hand, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced Wednesday that he would seek another waiver for treatment standards at San Diego’s largest sewage treatment plant.

The Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, which releases 170 million gallons of treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean each day, doesn’t filter out a federally required amount of waste before being piped 4.5 miles offshore.

The plant sits on the oceanfront bluffs of Point Loma just north of Cabrillo National Monument and has little room to expand, a requisite for an upgrade. The facility has had a waiver from federal Clean Water Act requirements since 1995 and must reapply for that exemption by mid-December. The city estimates an upgrade would cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

The mayor’s decision sets up the city for a litigious fight with local environmentalists, who have threatened to sue over the waiver.

But Sanders said that the academic review and concerns about increasing rates justified another waiver. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would decide whether to grant the waiver sometime next year.

“Seeking a waiver is the most prudent course of action for taxpayers in the city,” Sanders said. “It helps us avoid as much as $1.5 billion in costs for a secondary treatment plant that is simply not needed and that ratepayers cannot afford.”

Timothy Bertch, director of the city’s Metropolitan Wastewater Department, said upgrading the Point Loma sewage plant would be costly and not result in significant improvements to discharges. While 85 percent of the solid matter in sewage is currently removed, an upgrade would improve that to about 90 percent.

Environmentalists acknowledge the gain is small, but say the city — the last major West Coast municipality with a waiver — needs to improve its sewage treatment.

“It’s becoming a pattern — we’re not going to make any hard choices on the environment,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. “And they’re abdicating their responsibility. If they’re not going to come to the table, we are going to be in a litigation mode.”

Sanders’ announcement followed the release of a $200,000 analysis conducted by scientists at University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University. At Sanders’ behest, the scientists reviewed annual water quality monitoring data the city collects around the plant’s outfall. They found no evidence of any “significant adverse impacts.”

In a press conference, Sanders took that a step further. The sewage discharge, he said, had “virtually no impact whatsoever.”

Scientists involved in drafting the report said the mayor’s statement went too far.

“Nobody can say that there’s no impact, period. There’s an outfall,” said Paul Dayton, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography kelp biologist who contributed to the report. “What I would say is that I have found no measurable impact.”

Richard Gersberg, a San Diego State environmental health professor who also contributed, said he disagreed with the mayor’s decision to apply for a waiver.

The scientists were only able to review data that the city had collected. They did not do any field surveys or original sampling. The city’s data was “decent,” Gersberg said, but provides an incomplete picture of the sewage’s effects.

The scientific review analyzed existing data routinely collected by the city, which gathers 150,000 samples annually. It looked at the sewage’s effects on bottom-dwelling fish (no impacts were found), examined whether the sewage plume returned to shore (it doesn’t) and whether toxins are accumulating in nearby fish (PCBs are there but the source is inconclusive.)

The monitoring data did not analyze overall fish health or reproduction around the discharge. It did not sample for estrogenic chemicals — birth control drugs that women ingest and eventually excrete and flush into the sewer system — that are emerging as a concern because of their effects on fish reproduction. Nor does the data sample for the presence of viruses.

“There was a whole group of things that there is no data on,” Gersberg said. “I can’t say that it has no effect. It might, it might not, I have no idea.”

The report concluded that “further observations and analysis may be warranted.” But where sufficient data existed, no concerns exist, it said.

Reznik said the uncertainties in the analysis were reason enough to pursue an upgrade — and helped buoy a potential suit against the city, which would have to prove the waiver would be financially infeasible and cause no harm.

“There still is a lot we don’t know,” Reznik said. “When you don’t know, you err on the side of environmental protection.”

Reznik said he would support a waiver until 2013, when temporary wastewater rate increases would expire, if the city agreed now to make the upgrade then. Reznik has also offered to support an even longer delay if the city agreed to increase its water recycling efforts.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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