Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007 | The City Council on Tuesday agreed by a 7-1 vote to apply for a waiver that would permit San Diego to continue dumping sewage into the Pacific Ocean at a level that doesn’t meet federal standards.

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The Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant releases 170 million gallons of the region’s treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean each day. But it doesn’t filter out a federally required amount of waste before piping it 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 every five years. The city estimates an upgrade would cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

The decision leaves the city poised for a litigious fight with local environmentalists, who have threatened to sue if the city sought another waiver.

Many council members said pursuing the minimal gain from an upgrade was not worth the potentially high expense. While 85 percent of the solid matter in sewage is currently removed under primary treatment, an upgrade to secondary treatment would improve that to about 90 percent.

“We would be irresponsible to not pursue this waiver,” said Councilman Jim Madaffer. “I think we have much ado about nothing here.”

While the council said it needed to develop alternate plans for the Point Loma facility in case the waiver was denied, council members didn’t outline any process for doing so.

Though she voted in favor of the waiver, Councilwoman Toni Atkins questioned the action, pointing out that a council committee agreed in July 2006 to begin developing a plan to upgrade to secondary treatment at the sewage plant.

“I thought we were on a track in which there was a plan, and we had the environmental community with us,” Atkins said. “I deserve some better explanations about how we got to where we have gotten today and how the shift occurred.”

The council expects to be sued for pursuing the waiver. Two environmentalists, the only people to speak against the waiver, made the threat clear and said they believed they would prevail in court.

“This is really a sad day for San Diego,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental group that opposed the waiver. “The question is not if we’re going to upgrade to secondary, it’s when, and on whose terms.”

The waiver issue has left environmentalists doing a balancing act. At the same time they have threatened to sue over the waiver, environmentalists have also said they would support the waiver if the city committed to a long-term plant upgrade or agreed to use recycled sewage as a water supply.

Reznik has acknowledged that the upgrade would provide a small incremental improvement. But the city’s noncompliance with the federal law has given environmentalists a bargaining chip in their efforts on other fronts.

Councilwoman Donna Frye, the lone representative to vote against the application, suggested that the city should pursue sewage recycling as a way to forestall a lawsuit.

“The litigation is coming,” she said. “It can be stopped. There needs to be some commitment to that.”

Reznik has offered to support the waiver application for an unspecified duration if the city agreed to pursue plans to fill drinking reservoirs with treated sewage, a plan sometimes derisively called “toilet-to-tap.” While the City Council has supported a pilot study, Mayor Jerry Sanders vetoed it last week and the council has not yet reconsidered it.

Marco Gonzalez, a Surfrider Foundation attorney, said environmentalists wanted the city to make a formal declaration supporting toilet-to-tap before they would endorse the waiver. With Sanders opposed to toilet-to-tap, Gonzalez said he worried the city’s commitment was tenuous.

“It’s a weird place to negotiate a deal in a public forum,” Gonzalez said. “Until some of those things get resolved in an enforceable document, we have to put up our dukes on all fronts to make sure we get some stability.”

But Gonzalez and Reznik were the only two public speakers to argue against the waiver. A stream of supporters from local cities, community and business groups, as well as taxpayer advocates said the waiver was needed.

“Independent scientific experts are continually finding that this system makes sense,” said Andrew Poat, vice president of public policy at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. “Why would we spend $1.5 billion to accomplish [a] minimal impact?”

The waiver’s supporters repeatedly cited a $200,000 analysis completed in mid-October by a team of scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and San Diego State University that found no evidence of any “significant adverse impacts” from the current treatment levels.

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 into sewers — that are emerging as a concern because of their effects on fish reproduction. Nor did the data sample for the presence of viruses.

The city’s application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is due in mid-December. Timothy Bertch, the city’s metropolitan wastewater director, said he expects a decision from regulators in spring or summer.

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