Reclamator inventor sues water resources establishment
October 31, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
Tom Murphy is not a patient man, but he is immensely optimistic.
Murphy scoffed brusquely at questions about whether his sewage-treatment invention, the Reclamator, really works, and suggested the machine’s capability is a foregone conclusion. And he’ll be putting the validity of his claim to the test in court as he takes on the entire governmental water resources infrastructure with an ambitious lawsuit filed Oct. 24 in San Francisco’s U.S. District Court.
Harvey Packard, enforcement coordinator for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said he thinks Murphy’s interpretation of federal law “is completely wrong, misguided. He’s the only person in the United States who reads federal law that way.”
Packard added, “No one has ever tried to find out if his [Murphy’s] claims have any merit. No one does any analysis of that.”
The Nevada-based Murphy owns a residence in Los Osos where his own Reclamator is installed. His system is working fine, he told a reporter as he demonstrated several of its sequential operations. But it’s doing only part of the job it is designed to do, and not because of any technological limitation, Murphy wryly noted. It’s because of what he termed selective enforcement on behalf of special interests, with self-serving interpretation of existing water law.
Murphy can treat his own water all he wants. But he can’t use it. He must dump it into the town’s storm runoff system. Regulations, you know.
And therein lays the story of how this pending David and Goliath confrontation got to the point of presenting a legitimate legal threat to deeply-entrenched national, state, regional, and local water resources bureaucracies.
In the event you’ve been living in a black bag for the past few decades, Los Osos is a bedroom community in San Luis Obispo County stubbornly clinging to vestiges of the past, with aging and leaky septic systems serving residences, businesses, and public buildings. A long-ensuing battle waged by water quality regulators against property owners in the town of 15,000 is expected to result in construction of an increasingly-expensive sewer system. But the conflict, despite its longevity, may be far from over.
That’s because a final decision to build a large-scale public works project, such as a sewer system, now must be made amid technological advances that eventually may make dinosaurs of sewers and appurtenant collection and treatment facilities, such as the costly “state of the art” one proposed by advocates of the Los Osos sewer. Until that time, however, benefactors of the status quo must struggle mightily to maintain their currently superior position as the world changes around them. There’s a lot of money involved; the Los Osos sewer system has an estimated price tag of $250 million.
Innovative onsite systems, however, are being developed that not only comply with water quality requirements, but often improve that water quality to the point of creating potable water from raw sewage. Murphy unhesitatingly credits his Reclamator with doing all of that better than anything else yet developed.
The point, Murphy snarled, is that regulators will be out of a job if they do not figure out a way to continue their unlawful appropriation of effluent water.
“I buy the water I use for my residence,” said Murphy. “But the way it’s set up now, the regulators just let me use it, and then they take it without compensating me.” All consumers pay for water disposed of through a sewer system. But that water, Murphy emphasized, maintains its value and provides a source of revenue for whatever public agency is running the sewer system. And that, he says, is simply theft and fraud, because his system produces pure, drinkable water which could be reused or resold by its purchaser.
It’s not a matter of whether these new systems actually work, according to some state officials. At issue is whether those state officials have approved the system. And no onsite system has been approved for use in Los Osos.
Technologically-advanced onsite treatment systems, installed by property owners, are “threatening the need for big public works projects and ultimately the [Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s] very existence [and it] is on a mission to prove that it is far more interested in ‘water control’ than ‘water quality,’” wrote the editors of a South County Web site, “Without the ability to regulate emerging onsite technologies, the water board would eventually run out of pollution to fine and to prosecute… and become the Maytag repairman of the new millennium.”
Mark Low, a partner in the Reclamator’s parent company, AES DES, reiterated that charge.
“The board only wants to control the water, no matter the eventual cost to the people they are supposed to serve,” he said. Low said he believes the entrenched water establishment has “way too much to lose” if onsite systems like the Reclamator are allowed.
Murphy’s lawsuit names as plaintiffs the federal Environmental Protection Agency; the state of California; the California EPA; the State Water Resources Control Board; the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board; the county of San Luis Obispo; and the Los Osos Community Services District.
At its core, the claim alleges that “water Murphy purchased with the understanding that he had right of 100 percent beneficial competitive use, and now is deprived of the right to exercise a practice of water conservation by reuse or recycling of his water.” In other words, he wants to be able to use or sell the water his invention has reclaimed.
Murphy alleges in his lawsuit that regulators from the federal level on down are continuing a conspiracy to “prevent AES from doing business nationally [by] providing the best available pollutant discharge elimination technology currently available.
The water board’s Packard said Murphy “has never asked the county for a permit to use the water he’s treating [onsite]. It’s a bit of a stretch to me.”
The action will commence with an effort at mediation at a time to be announced.