Sanitation District Hit with $1.1 Million Fine

October 4, 2012

Santa Maria Times

Downey Brand attorney Melissa A. Thorme is mentioned in this Santa Maria Times article about The Regional Water Quality Control Board fining the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District for a raw sewage spill at a sewage plant in Oceano during a flood. Melissa represents the sanitation district as well as the sewage plant operator Wallace Engineering Group. 

See full article below or view it online at the Santa Maria Times.

By Kenneth Klein/Contributing Writer for the Santa Maria Times.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board on Wednesday fined taxpayers in the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District a little more than $1.1 million — about one-third of its annual budget — for a raw sewage spill in Oceano during a flood on Dec. 19, 2010.

The fines were reduced from a potential $1.3 million after the board spent six hours deliberating the severity of a number of factors.

Those included potential harm, cooperation and cleanup, the history of violations, the ability to pay and continue in business and investigation costs.

The board set the spill at about 674,000 gallons instead of the staff’s estimate of a little more than 1.1 million gallons.

The fine includes $75,000 in staff costs for the investigation. Not included are the district’s investigative costs for defending itself, which could total as much as $100,000.

“This is a clear example of taxation without representation,” said Oceano Community Services District Director Mary Lucey.

The Sanitation District sewage plant is operated by Wallace Engineering Group, with John Wallace serving as general manager, both under contract with the district.

The cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach and the Oceano Community Services District pay the district to process their sewage.

Wallace and the Sanitation District’s attorney, Melissa A. Thorme, said they will make a decision today on whether to appeal the results of the hearing and begin talks.

The proposed $1.3 million fine represents about 36 percent of the district’s budget, Wallace said.

Before the meeting, Grover Beach City Councilman Bill Nichols, who is also chairman of the Sanitation District board, asked for a "fair” and “equitable” decision-making process that put the district’s ratepayers first.

Oceano resident Jennifer Blackburn, who sat outside the closed-door meeting with her two small children waiting for the decision to be announced about 3:30 p.m., seemed surprised.

“I am disappointed, and it would have been better if was reduced (further),” said Blackburn, who added she planned to review the board’s 12-page decision immediately.

A 16-hour hearing to determine the amount of the spill was held Sept. 7 at the board’s office near the San Luis Obispo Regional Airport.

The district estimated the spill at somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 gallons, while a water quality control board engineer estimated it at 1.14 million gallons.

There is no documentation that the spill caused any illnesses or environmental pollution.

Water board investigators maintained the spill was the result of delayed maintenance and incorrect operating procedures at the sanitation plant near the Oceano Lagoon.

However, the district said the spill resulted from a series of unfortunate events after a flood caused an electrical short-circuit that stopped the plant’s four pumps.

The electrical vault where the short occurred had been budgeted for repair, but the work had not been done.

District operators then turned to an emergency pump, but a valve on that system had been closed and could be opened only partially before sewer and flood waters overran the plant.