The spill is gone


Residents of Malibu Villas were stunned when they received notice from the city two years ago that if they didn’t upgrade their septic system, they could be evacuated and the buildings shut down. The city was responding to complaints by residents and neighbors about the stench and health hazards of periodic sewage overflows, or what engineers euphemistically call “daylighting.”

Though the 116-unit condominium complex was fiscally healthy, with spacious units and handsomely maintained grounds, it was running a 1970s conventional septic system typical of many in Malibu that are beginning to fail.

“When the effluent had backed up out of the seepage pits, residents whose units are close to areas where the stench was terrible complained to the city, to the health department,” said Malibu Villas resident David Shaub, who chairs the septic project for the Villas’ board of directors.

Little did they know then just how long the learning curve would be. “We had to conduct a series of meetings to educate the homeowners,” Shaub said.

“A lot of people just wanted us to put a Band-Aid on it. Many just felt we could patch it up again, but the city was not going to buy into that. They weren’t going to let us do that. One of the things we promised the city we would do is to institute daily pumping to avoid daylighting.”

So, the homeowners, who had been paying upwards of $12,000 in monthly pumping costs, ultimately voted to pony up almost $1 million for a sophisticated multi-unit Fixed Activated Sludge Treatment (FAST) Wastewater System, monitored by an Isaac computer system, that will eliminate regular pumping.

The clean, odorless system is virtually maintenance-free, reliable, quiet and located below ground level. The effluent it generates will be tertiary-treated water that exceeds EPA standards for Class 1 secondary effluent and can be used for subsurface irrigation. The system also integrates the existing septic system so that should a natural disaster cause a power failure, the old system would function with part of the new as a backup.

“As soon as they are up and running, we can say goodbye to the pump truck and the noise and the traffic and the worry,” said Shaub.

“The FAST system was originally developed by Smith & Loveless, a world leader in the wastewater industry, at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard in the early 1970s to prevent pollution caused by ships cruising in coastal waters and dumping wastewater overboard,” said Steve Braband, president of Agoura-based Biosolutions, Inc., environmental engineering consultants overseeing the Malibu Villas installation. The 42 FAST units (each unit serves three to four condos) are being installed now.

“We interviewed several consultants before we decided on Steve, who obtained proposals from different companies,” Shaub said. After exploring several options, the FAST system was chosen as the most suitable for the situation.

“When we started pumping, it was costing about $5,000 a month. The pump trucks had been dumping the effluent into a facility owned by the city of L.A. and the city was finally fed up, so to speak, and imposed a charge that increased our pumping costs to $12,000 a month,” Shaub said. “And the residents were fed up with the sound of the pumping disturbing the peace and the truck blocking traffic, in addition to the cost.”

Shaub said the new septic system was funded out of the regular homeowner fees. A special assessment to stave off the costs of changing the system came to about $2,000 per unit.

“No matter how hard we tried, managing the system failures, we had problems, pumps break,” Shaub said. “Most people don’t know how to maintain the systems, they don’t even know how they function, how environmental conditions can make them fail.”

“What Malibu Villas did is to review multiple technologies,” Braband said. “They chose this one for its maintenance record and reliability. It has no moving parts below the surface. The city, in permitting this installation, had to provide new ordinances to allow this to be accepted over the old county regulations.”

The new system is scheduled to be completed in April or May.

“It was clear to us that the route we’ve taken was the only sensible thing to do,” Shaub said. “To provide a healthy and secure system.”