Hill challenges Shoals
November 15, 2014
OPINION By JIM HILL
The recent election represents an opportunity for residents of Grover Beach, Oceano and Arroyo Grande to change some policies at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District that have not been in residents’ interest. In 2010, a spill estimated at 384,000 gallons of raw sewage was released from the treatment plant, seriously affecting nearby homes and the area environment.
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has authority to levy fines of up to $10 per gallon for such events, but according to OCSD Director Lucey’s statements on the record, the water board responded with a settlement offer to the district of $300,000. This would represent a charge of roughly $10 per resident of the district, rounding the population to 30,000.
John Wallace, then Administrator of the sanitation district, didn’t want a fine on his record and prevailed on his friend, Arroyo Grande Mayor Ferrara, to challenge the fine with the regional water board.
The sanitation district board, led by Mayor Ferrara, voted to challenge the fine and hired an attorney to represent the district before the water board. The legal fees for the challenge came to about $750,000 –two and a half times the amount of the settlement offer – or about $25 per each resident of the District.
Due to the challenge, the water quality board thoroughly investigated the sewage spill, finding Administrator Wallace directly responsible and increasing the fine to nearly $1.2 million (still a relatively small fraction of the potential maximum), or another $40 per resident.
Just now, Mayor Ferrara has convinced the current sanitation district board to file a lawsuit against the state to protest the increased fine. The same attorney who lost the challenge at the water board has been engaged again.
There is no reason to believe the legal fees alone would not exceed $750,000 this time around, $25 more per resident on top of the $65 already charged, and it is very unlikely the sanitation district will prevail in the lawsuit – in fact, the fine could be increased yet again.
I invite newly elected Mayor Shoals of Grover Beach to join my effort to stop the lawsuit before more damage is done. If not, each resident’s liability could increase to $90 or more in legal fees and fines, or $360 for a family of four.
I know this is unaffordable for most Arroyo Grande families and I’m pretty sure the same is true for Grover Beach and Oceano. Worse, there will be no tangible benefit for the money spent.
It remains for each city and the OCSD to pursue restitution for the fine with former Administrator Wallace, something outgoing Grover Beach Mayor Peterson would have been willing to pursue, and the regional board did determine the spill was directly Wallace’s fault. That course seems to me far more likely to reduce the cost to district ratepayers than additional lawsuits engineered to protect favored interests.
Jim Hill is a write-in-candidate for the Arroyo Grande Mayor seat against Ferrara who is currently trailing in unofficial results.