Statement: “We are potentially facing billions of dollars of fines from the federal government if we fail to bring the (Point Loma sewage) plant up to standard,” City Council candidate Patrick Finucane’s campaign website stated as of May 26.
Analysis: The federal Clean Water Act requires sewage treatment plants to remove 85 percent of two pollutants before discharging treated waste into the ocean. San Diego’s plant doesn’t meet that standard, removing just 80 percent of one pollutant and 58 percent of another. But it has a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to continue operating.
The EPA grants waivers when cities can demonstrate their sewage discharges aren’t harming human health or the ocean environment. San Diego has done that, though the EPA has signaled that the city should move toward reducing how much sewage it dumps in the ocean.
The plant’s waiver is now in the process of being renewed, but what would happen if the EPA declined? Would it fine the city billions of dollars if it refused to upgrade?
No, said John Kemmerer, associate director of the EPA’s water division. “There isn’t really a scenario here under normal circumstances that would result in the city facing a lot of fines.”
So what leverage would the EPA have to compel San Diego’s compliance with the Clean Water Act if it wasn’t going to grant a waiver? With any municipality, Kemmerer said the agency first tries to reach an agreement to establish a schedule or plan for upgrades (with potential penalties — not billions — for failing to stay on track). If no settlement can be reached, the EPA can take a city to court to force compliance with the law.
If San Diego ignored a resulting order to upgrade its plant or violated its permit, it could face a maximum $37,500 daily fine. (It would take 73 years for that to amount to $1 billion.)
Finucane acknowledged he was incorrect about the billions in fines and said he needed to reword the statement (he’s since deleted it). Finucane made his statement in touting sewage recycling as one way to address Point Loma’s waiver issue. Finucane’s incumbent opponent in the District 2 race, Kevin Faulconer, has opposed recycling sewage to boost drinking water supplies.
The plant could eventually cost residents more than a billion — though not in fines. Upgrading the plant to meet the normal Clean Water Act standards would be expensive. Mayor Jerry Sanders has estimated its cost at $1.5 billion, though environmental groups have questioned whether it would be that high.
That’s a Fact Check for another day.
— ROB DAVIS