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Chloride options: Pay up or pay up

‘There’s no winning a fight against the state,’ one official says as residents face choices

Posted: May 11, 2013 1:00 p.m.
Updated: May 11, 2013 1:00 p.m.

Nearly everyone who flushes a toilet or does a load of laundry in the Santa Clarita Valley faces a complicated and costly problem over the issue of chloride contamination ­— and, according to sanitation officials, it’s a problem that’s not going to go away.

On Nov. 26, the state agency responsible for making sure natural lakes and rivers are not contaminated fined the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District $225,000 for failing to meet the obligations of its permit to discharge chloride into the Santa Clara River.

It’s a fine for which sanitation district customers — everyone in the valley hooked up to the sewer system — will be responsible.

Last month, in an effort to comply with its permit, the district unveiled its latest plan for controlling chloride — namely, four options for which it hopes to get the public’s input. Ultimately, it wants public support for one.

Recently, engineers who designed that plan visited The Signal to explain each of the four options for controlling the amount of chloride discharged into the Santa Clara River.

Editors, however, asked about a fifth option: doing nothing at all.

What if we, as ratepayers expected to pay the fines, refuse to pay them?

Fighting chloride fines by refusing to pay them would be costly, illegal and painful, said Sanitation District spokesman Phil Friess.

“That’s untenable,” he told The Signal Editorial Board.

“If we don‘t take action, the state will bring enforcement designed to become more and more painful until we come into line,” he said.

One of the consequences of pursuing a refusal-to-pay option is that the fines will increase and intensify, according to both Friess and Laurene Weste, who sits on both the Santa Clarita City Council and the three-member board of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District.

Sanitation officials likened the approach to refusing to pay income tax.

Another consequence would likely be a denial of service similar to having one’s power shut off if one refuses to pay the electric company.

Any new home or business seeking a sewer hook-up would be turned down.

“They can stop all (sewer) hookups,” Weste said at the recent Editorial Board meeting.

“That would stop all business here and stop all development.”

The result would be economically disastrous for the Santa Clarita Valley, said Fred Arnold, chairman of the board of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“It would be devastating to the local economy,” he said.

All development in the Santa Clarita Valley would come to a complete stop if new businesses could not obtain hookups to the sewer system, he said.

“And, if there’s no new business coming to our valley, what’s the valley going to look like?” he said.

When asked what he would like to see in terms of business access to sewers, Arnold said he wants a fair rate structure.

“I would like to see equal sacrifice for equal use,” he said.

California has nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards that fall under the state Water Resources Control Board. It was the Los Angeles board that issued the November $225,000 fine against the local sanitation district.

A division to crack down on communities that contaminate their environment with substances such as chloride was created in 2007. Called the Office of Enforcement, it was set up to issue fines and enforce outstanding violations of the state and federal clean water laws — the 1972 federal Clean Water Act and the state’s 1969 Porter-Cologne Act.

In the first year of the Office of Enforcement’s operation, Santa Paula faced a water board fine of $8 million.

Residents of Fillmore were hit with $243,000 in fines; the tiny farm town of Dixon paid $223,000; even tinier San Juan Bautista was poised to shell out at least $25 for each man, woman and child in town in terms of fines levied against it.

The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District could be fined $10 for every illegally discharged gallon of water, Regional Water Quality Control officials say. The district’s two water treatment plants discharge 200 million gallons every day.

Any fines incurred by the district would be passed on to ratepayers, Grace Robinson Chan, chief engineer and general manager for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, told the Editorial Board.

Could we as ratepayers be held responsible for multi-million-dollar fines each day?

Sam Unger, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board’s executive officer, reassured attendees of a recent Santa Clarita City Council meeting that the board is “reasonable,” He said part of most fines is returned to the communities fined in the form of environmental improvements.

Sanitation officials are hoping the public will help them find a way out of their dilemma the next couple of months by choosing one of the four chloride-removal options and agreeing to pay for it.

Costs outlined in the chloride-removal plan estimate a single-family home would pay $410 under Alternative 2, and $430 under Alternative 3, in the year 2019/20. It would pay $395 and $535 a year for each phase, respectively, under Alternative 4.

Currently, yearly sewer fees are $213 for the same single-family home, the plan says.

When asked which of the four proposed options the sanitation district prefers, Friess said the district wants input from the public before it commits to one over the others.

The first of six public information meetings and hearings on the plan, called the Draft Chloride Compliance Facilities Plan and Environmental Impact Report, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Live Oak Elementary School in Castaic.

The meeting is a chance for the community to learn more about the chloride compliance problem and the choices for meeting the state’s salt limit, said district Senior Engineer Basil Hewitt.

District leaders were also asked about a sixth option: What if civic leaders representing the Santa Clarita Valley sue the water district over the chloride demands?

“Then you add legal fees to the cost,” Friess said. “You don’t win.”

“There’s no winning a fight against the state,” he said.
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt




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