Treading a fine line


Malibu will not have to pay a $5,700 fine levied by the Regional Water Quality Control Board for delays in submitting a work plan addressing septic system performance and pollution in Malibu Lagoon.

City Attorney Christi Hogin called it a “victory” when the five-member board voted unanimously to rescind the fine, averting a possible legal battle with the city.

The fine, which could have been as much as $130,000 — or $1,000 for each day the city exceeded the deadline for filing the work plan — was considered by the city to be more unfair than excessive.

“Fines are for polluters,” said Hogin after the ruling Friday. “The city has been cooperating with the board to answer the question of why the lagoon is polluted.”

In fact, a study released in February by UCLA scientists raised more questions than answers regarding possible sources of high levels of bacteria and nitrates in lower Malibu Creek and Lagoon. Everything from the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility to hikers and homeless encampments, livestock and even ducks were cited.

When the sand berm separating the lagoon from the surf zone is breached, the toxic soup flows out onto the beach, and surfers complain of numerous health problems, including rashes, eye and ear infections, and respiratory and intestinal symptoms. Surfrider Beach routinely is graded “F” by environmental watchdog organization Heal the Bay, based on water samples taken daily and weekly.

But the water board has blamed much of the pollution on malfunctioning septic systems adjacent to the creek and lagoon and along Malibu’s entire coastline.

The city began its own investigation of septics in the Cross Creek area, where engineers have yet to make a “hydraulic connection.”

City officials have also promoted installation of on-site wastewater treatment plants to replace failing septics and for new and substantially renovated homes.

Some of the older systems, serving multifamily and commercial properties originally permitted by Los Angeles County, have already been replaced with the new, computer-monitored designs, which engineers say virtually eliminate “daylighting” or polluted runoff.

Some of the systems produce treated wastewater suitable for sub-irrigation, the quality of which, experts say, equals or exceeds that of reclaimed water sold by Tapia for irrigation.

The water board notified the city last June that it would have to produce a plan by July, then extended the deadline to September. City officials said they wanted to wait for the release of the UCLA study, which they hoped would provide more scientific information and possibly pinpoint the sources of pollution.

After the board voted to rescind the fine, Hogin said, “The board embraced our spirit of cooperation over the objections of its staff.”

A bill that would set statewide standards for septic performance in the coastal zone has passed the state Assembly and is on its way to the Senate. While the city supports the intent of AB 885, it opposes specific language in the bill relating to acceptable pollution levels.