Expensive Decision Looms Over Treatment Plant


Every home and business in Laguna Beach with a toilet contributes to the waste stream flowing into a treatment plant located within the Aliso Canyon wilderness park, upstream from Aliso Beach. From there, the solid waste, or sludge, crosses four miles of parkland underground through aging, pressurized pipes to a regional treatment plant in Laguna Niguel. Installed three decades ago, the sludge pipes began corroding years ago and there have been periodic breaks and spills since, including a one-inch hole in a sludge line located and soon repaired last week.

“We have lived in fear for 20 years of spilling this charming sludge into Aliso Creek,” said Brian Peck, director of engineering at South Orange County Wastewater Authority, who on Tuesday, Feb. 12, asked Laguna’s City Council to approve building a new, six-inch $4.2 million replacement pipeline.

The city is just one of the plant’s four owners, which include the Moulton Niguel and South Coast water districts and Emerald Bay.

But Laguna’s council deadlocked on the matter: Toni Iseman and Mayor Kelly Boyd favored replacement of the sludge lines, while Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow favored considering alternatives, including building a $17 million on-site sludge-treatment plant. Council member Elizabeth Pearson’s absence due to illness created the stalemate.

The matter will be reviewed again in Laguna on March 5. The same week, SOCWA meets on March 7 to take final public comment on the environmental impact report on the project and proposed alternatives. Once the EIR is approved, the four owners will be asked to recommend their preferred course of action.

Six impassioned residents all spoke in opposition to the pipeline solution during Laguna’s Feb. 12 meeting.

SOCWA supports a new pipeline to replace the corroded one in roughly in the same location as the old one, along the east side of flood-prone Aliso Creek. The organization considered a wide range of alternatives and solicited input from the public and 15 interested groups, including Village Laguna, Laguna Greenbelt and South Laguna Civic Association. If approved, Laguna would contribute about one third, or about $1.4 million, to the pipeline project.

While the plant’s four owners each have one vote, they share costs based on use, roughly 38 percent for Laguna, about 30 percent each for South Coast and Moulton Niguel water districts and 3 percent for Emerald Bay.

Before backing the pipeline choice, SOCWA officials explored three alternatives. One, running a similar pipeline, but along the west side of the creek, they jettisoned due to the presence of buried Native American artifacts found in that area. Trucking rather than piping the sludge to the regional facility at a cost of $600,000 was considered and rejected due to exhaust from a projected five to seven round trips per day.

The fourth more ambitious alternative involves installing a $17 million on-site sludge treatment facility at the plant, avoiding the need to export sludge.

If money were no object, SOCWA general manager Tom Rosales said innovative methods could be integrated in a new plant, “but unfortunately, we don’t have enough money, nor do we have enough time. If the pipeline fails in the near future, the consequences are pretty ugly for everybody.”

The sludge lines have sustained six leaks in 30 years, he said. Two significant spills into the creek occurred in recent years: a 500-gallon spill in December 2010 and a 2,700-gallon spill in February 2011.

The plant, which also discharges up to 33.2 million gallons of treated water per day into the ocean off Aliso Beach, has not been upgraded since 1982. According to Mike Beanan, vice president of South Laguna Civic Association who testified to the council, it is due for an overhaul that should incorporate improvements in technology such as fuel cells powered by methane.

Dr. Shane Stephens-Romero, senior scientist at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine, supported that view.

Treatment plants typically use anaerobic digesters to break down solid waste into methane, which was originally just burned off, Stephens-Romero said. Subsequent technology allowed for the burning methane to fuel the digesters. Now that biogas can be transferred to stationery fuel cells to produce both heat to power the digester and electricity to run the plant. There are enough such fuel cells already in use by waste treatment plants in California to produce 10 megawatts, or enough energy to power 10,000 homes, Stephens-Romero said.

“It’s a market that’s really beginning to take off in California,” he said, adding that the “highly efficient” process generates low emissions.

“If people are not already using it, it’s only because they have systems in place that are working,” he said.

Resident Chris Prelitz called the pipeline proposal a “Band-Aid on an outdated technology.”

“I do think it is a Band-Aid, even if it’s a $1.4 million Band-Aid,” said Iseman, the city’s representative on SOCWA’s board, who described hundreds of hours devoted to exploring all of the alternatives. But while she praised investigating cutting edge solutions, she disagreed with putting off a decision. “I feel a certain degree of urgency on this,” she said. “To me it’s insurance to put in this pipeline.”

“I just don’t think putting a pipe back through that park for another 20 to 30 years is the right option,” disagreed Whalen, who called the $17 million tab for a new solids handling plant “not an insurmountable mountain to climb.”

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  1. The nature of past pipeline failures will determine the urgency for replacement of the pipeline now or building a new sludge facility. The individual best qualified to make that call is Mr. Brian Peck, director of engineering at SOCWA. The late Gary Alstot has cautioned the Laguna Beach Council for years on wastewater matters, he cautioned to plan for retirement/replacement of these facilities. Since the replacements were not made prior to the end of the pipeline service live, we no longer have the luxury of choosing from ideal options. Capital infrastructure requires long-term investment and planning, we should learn from this example.

  2. Thank you Jennifer for your fair reporting on this complex issue of replacing the Sludge Line for the Coastal Treatment Plant. Local organizations are meeting with cell-fuel experts even as I speak and I think we need to be thinking beyond what is the cheapest way to solve an aging pipeline by replacing it with the same old technology – this is just a bandaid not a valid solution.


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