Laguna Beach’s City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday in support of a $4.2 million project to replace 30-year-old pipes that convey solid waste from coastal treatment plant in Aliso Canyon to a regional treatment plant in Laguna Niguel.
A field trip to South Orange County Water Authority’s treatment plant on Monday to examine on-site sludge treatment using fuel cell technology, the preferred alternative to a pipeline, changed the debate’s landscape and may have helped swing the vote.
City officials, SOCWA staff and community representatives toured the treatment plant with representatives from UC Irvine’s National Fuel Cell Research Center and FuelCell Energy, Inc., which makes the fuel cells.
The experts effectively ruled out that alternative. “The coastal plant is too small to put a fuel cell on site there,” said Dr. Shane Stephens-Romero, a senior scientist at the center. The amount of waste processed there was not enough to make it a viable project for the site, he said.
Later, the four owners of the treatment plant, including Laguna, South Coast and Moulton Niguel water districts and Emerald Bay, voted to move forward on the project to replace the sludge pipes at a SOCWA meeting Thursday, March 7. At the same time, SOCWA’s board also certified the environmental impact report on the project.
Previously, Laguna’s council members deadlocked with Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow asking for additional consideration of alternatives, such as an estimated $17 million on-site sludge treatment system and Mayor Kelly Boyd and Council Member Toni Iseman favoring approval of the new $4.2 million pipeline, citing financial concerns and fear of the consequences of an imminent rupture, respectively. Elizabeth Pearson was not present to break the tie.
Without an immediate alternative, pipeline opponents shifted their focus, starting a dialogue about the future. Village Laguna president Ginger Osborne, speaking on behalf of several community groups, reiterated that the sensitive riparian habitat in the wilderness park is no place for a sewage pipe or a treatment plant. Anticipating stricter regulations and improvements in sewage processing, she suggested that water authorities come up with a master plan and city officials form a wastewater task force to examine alternatives.
Mike Beanan, vice president of South Laguna Civic Association, agreed to the idea of a task force and the need to continue the dialogue that’s already begun with an eye toward better alternatives, especially given the inevitable erosion of any pipes, since the current pipes, originally touted as being good for 100 years, began eroding after only 10.
Pipeline proponents, meanwhile, highlighted the urgency of replacing the existing pipes. “One of the fundamental tenets of environmental law is that we do not spill raw sewage from pipelines. That’s what’s going on in Aliso Canyon and that’s what we need to worry about,” said Betty Burnett, SOCWA’s interim general manager. Burnett also suggested that any task force set up deal not just with wastewater treatment, but also with urban runoff in Aliso Creek, hiking trails and the threat of fire and flood.
Whalen, who shifted his vote to approve the new pipeline, first elicited confirmation from SOCWA’s general manager Tom Rosales that SOCWA would be willing to meet with Laguna representatives to find an on-site solution to sludge treatment in the future. In answer to another of Whalen’s queries, Rosales said that in the event of an on-site solution, there should be a possibility to repurpose the new pipeline. He also attested to the fact that the new pipeline, unlike the current one, will have access points that allow for visual inspection and that the project to replace the pipes includes plans to buffer strategic points against erosion.
In acquiescing to the pipeline project, Whalen pointed out that the dialogue yielded a side benefit, new momentum from community activists and water officials to look for longer range solutions.
“I thought the testimony tonight had great value,” agreed Iseman, who also supported establishing a wastewater task force and an eventual repurposing of replacement pipeline. But she said the fear of lawsuits in the event of a rupture is real and that knowledge of the problem increases liability.
David Shissler, the city’s director of water quality, agreed. Laguna was fined just $70,000 as a result of sewage spills of 590,000 gallons in Bluebird Canyon in 2008, he said. It was a relatively light fine because the city had no knowledge of an existing problem, while a similar spill in San Diego elicited a fine of almost $700,000 because city officials knew of an existing problem, Shissler said.
SOCWA was scheduled to meet on March 7 to take final public comment on the environmental impact report on the project, at which time the four owners of the treatment plant, including Laguna, South Coast and Moulton Niguel water districts and Emerald Bay, would be asked to recommend their preferred course of action. Michael Dunbar, general manager of the Emerald Bay Service district, said at Tuesday’s meeting that he supports the new pipeline.