Sanitation district and regulators at impasse
June 8, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Regional water resources control board officials have pulled the plug on settlement negotiations with the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District over a December 2010 raw sewage spill, and called an impasse.
As a result, a complaint is slated to be filed in the next few weeks to be followed by a hearing in which the details of the questionable spill and alleged administrative inadequacies will become public. The district, which serves the residents of the Oceano Community Service District, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach, faces a fine of up to $30 million.
Documents attached to emails obtained by CalCoastNews indicate that about 3 million gallons of raw sewage were released into Oceano neighborhoods, beaches and the Pacific Ocean at more than 30 times what was originally reported by district officials.
Shortly after the spill, which was caused by an electrical shortage of outdated wiring that had been slated to be replaced for years, district administrator John Wallace reported to health officials that the spill dumped 110,000 gallons of sewage into the community. A few weeks later, he estimated the spill at 384,000 gallons.
However, a series of emails between Wallace, Wallace Group staff and sanitation plant manager Jeff Appleton reveal that those involved in calculating the amount of sewage spilled argued amongst themselves on how many gallons they should report and who would sign state-mandated accounting forms.
Wallace is the owner and president of the Wallace Group, a private engineering consulting firm located in San Luis Obispo that receives from $50,000 to $80,000 a month for plant administration and engineering services.
In April 2011, the regional water resources control board slapped the sanitation district with a notice of violation and ordered district officials to respond to the allegations. Wallace and district board member and Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara have repeatedly claimed that allegations that the spill was inaccurately reported or the plant is mismanaged are untrue.
About a year and a half ago, the water board and district representatives entered into confidential negotiations. However, district officials appear to have broken confidentiality and asked legislators to step in on their behalf in an attempt to keep penalties at a minimum.
Representing the board, Ferrara asked Sen. Sam Blakeslee and Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian to speak to the water board on the district’s behalf. Both legislators wrote letters asking the board to consider the communities’ ability to pay while leveling fines.
In his letter, Achadjian said that he believed the district is well run and he noted concerns that fines could impact the fiscal health of the district.
“When they fine, I don’t want them put out of business,” Achadjian said to CalCoastNews. “I am worried about the communities.”
In his letter to the water board, Blakeslee requested that the impending “fine be reasonable, fair and based on the most accurate information available.”
“The SSLOCSD (district) has represented to me that they have been forthcoming and cooperative with both the community and the State Water Resources Control Board in response to the spill,” Blakeslee said in his letter to the board.
Nevertheless, water board officials contend district representatives have not been forthcoming and willing to negotiate a fair settlement.
The district’s attorney, Michael Seitz, contends it is standard practice for local government agencies to ask legislators to assist them in dealing with state agencies, and that the district’s representatives did not break confidentiality.
“Katcho did not participate in actual negotiations and at no time did Katcho indicate that there was anything confidential disclosed,” Seitz said. “However, Katcho did indicate that he assumed any information provided to him would be kept confidential as between all parties.”