Residents deny septics pollute

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Some Malibu residents say that septic systems are not the source of pollution of local waterways and that new regulations set by the state are too expensive.

By Olivia Damavandi / Staff Writer

High costs of adhering to statewide septic system regulations set to go into effect July 2010 have Malibu residents fuming. The new regulations are a result of Assembly Bill 885, passed in 2000, and will set regular monitoring and strict requirements of onsite wastewater treatment systems (septics) statewide.

In an effort to educate residents about the requirements of AB 885, 11 public workshops are being conducted by the State Water Resources Control Board throughout the state; one took place in Malibu last Wednesday at Malibu High, where residents argued with environmental organizations about the necessity of such regulations, even going as far as saying septic systems are not the cause of pollution in local waterways.

However, the affordability of adhering to the new regulations was cited as the biggest concern to residents.

Numerous Malibu residents say they will be burdened with the costs attached to AB 885, which include possible $35,000 to $45,000 septic system upgrades, mandatory $325 septic tests every five years and $325 inspections if a domestic well is located on a property.

Andrew Sheldon, the city’s environmental health specialist, said beachfront property owners are looking at total septic system upgrade costs of as much as $200,000, which does not match the amount represented in the analysis presented by the state water board. He estimated new systems would cost $85,000 without the inclusion of construction of sea walls, which can cost between $3,000 and $4,000 dollars per foot.

However, Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay and who helped write AB 885, said that those with beachfront homes would only face costs of disinfecting their systems, not replacing them.

Septic systems that are located within 600 feet of Malibu Lagoon or Creek would need to have the ability to remove nitrogen, a major source of water quality problems, Gold said.

“The high cost of compliance would be near [Malibu] lagoon or creek …not at the ocean,” Gold said.

A resident who lives within 600 feet of Malibu Creek said homeowners who did not build their septic systems should not be held financially responsible for them because they were built through instruction from a government agency during a different time period.

“Maybe not here in Malibu, but I do know $45,000 is the equivalent of the average income of a working man,” the resident said.

Gold said Malibu has been proactive in the attainment of clean water, but that AB 885 should focus on septic systems within 600 feet of the ocean or of Malibu Creek and Lagoon because they are impacted most by the pollution.

Sheldon said there are many questions surrounding the discernment of which septic systems are impacting local waters because the city has been using alternative advanced septic systems for several years.

According to city requirements, any septic systems located within 600 feet of an impaired water way must be advanced treatment systems. Norm Haynie, chair of the city’s Wastewater Advisory Committee, said the advanced systems are state of the art and do not pollute the ocean.

Walt Keller, a former Malibu mayor who has been involved with the city’s septic issue for 50 years, called septic systems “environmentally sound” and said the state water board is ignorant of such systems’ environmental efficacy. He said he also doubts the state will be able to fund the requirements of AB 885.

Laughter erupted from the audience when Keller suggested that since the city has no regulations for them, it might be easier to implement port-a-potties.

“I resent orders from you folks [State Water Resources Control Board] or the Regional Water Quality Board and I think our city’s doing a good job,” Keller said.

Malibu resident Daniel Helman said he has responded since the 1960s to charges that the city’s septic systems are a health hazard and called AB 885 another attempt to sewer Malibu.

“Please don’t allow state or special interests to sewer Malibu,” he said. “Septic tanks are not a health hazard and Malibu doesn’t want to pay for something it doesn’t need. If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”

Some Malibu residents don’t believe that septic tanks are the main sources of pollution in Malibu Creek, Lagoon, or coastal ocean waters, and list other sources, such as the Tapia wastewater treatment plant, as top contributors. Also listed as a culprit of contamination was the Malibu Mesa Wastewater Reclamation Plant, a tertiary wastewater treatment plant located on Pepperdine University land (the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works states on its Web Site that reclaimed water from the Mesa plant is used primarily for irrigation on the university’s campus).

Gold said that Tapia only discharges treated wastewater into the creek November through April, not year round, and that the Mesa treatment plant discharges very rarely, perhaps not at all in the last couple of years due to drought-like conditions.

“Nobody in the environmental community is saying that all water problems are due to septics,” Gold said. “The issue has more to do with that onsite systems have been unregulated for water quality until now… this is the first attempt to do that … [we are] filling a major gap that exists in the regulatory framework.”

Tom Ford, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper, told meeting attendees that the City of Malibu “has not done a good job” maintaining sufficient water quality levels.

“We have septic tanks that are polluting the waters that are not solely yours to pollute,” he said. “We are looking at people having to make an investment to look at a mess you’re creating. I’m not here to persecute people, I’m here to make the water safe.”