The Tapia Water Reclamation Facility was fined $70,000 this month for illegally discharging more than 19 million gallons of treated wastewater into Malibu Creek.
The discharges, occurring over a 13-day period last month, violated a permit issued by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) that prohibited any discharges into the creek by Tapia after May 1 or the first natural closure of the Malibu Lagoon sand bar. This year, because of high tides and heavy El Nino-driven storms, the berm did not close until Aug. 1, after which Tapia continued to discharge, according to the RWQCB.
The fine will almost certainly increase because Tapia continues to violate the permit, said City Engineer Rick Morgan. “They’ve been discharging through October, and they’ll be paying fines that go with that,” he said.
Because the wastewater is “cleaned up to a very substantial degree” before being discharged, the environmental impact is “minimalist if non-existent,” according to Dennis Dickerson, executive officer of the RWQCB. However, Malibu officials are skeptical about the safety of Tapia’s discharges. “The book is still open on that,” said Morgan.
Tapia officials are disappointed and frustrated by the situation they’re in, said Norman Buehring, director of resource conservation. “From the very beginning we were aware that we had a very difficult permit restriction to comply with.”
“Extraordinary measures” have been taken to prevent discharges into the creek but, partly due to unseasonable rains in early September, Tapia currently has too much water supply and too little demand from its customers, Buehring said. After diverting or storing as much of its supply as possible, he said, “There’s no other place to put it so it flows into the creek.”
Tapia is funding a study aimed at developing alternative sites for discharging its excess treated wastewater. The Tapia Reclamation Plant Flow Avoidance Study is expected to be completed by November of next year at a cost of $850,000. “It’s an enormous effort to complete all the work in a year and a half, but we expect to do it,” Buehring said.
The fine makes Tapia look like a “bad guy,” which is “misleading,” according to Dennis Washburn, vice president of the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, a nonregulatory agency in charge of resource management and education.
Tapia is held to a much higher standard than another nearby wastewater treatment facility, the Hyperion Treatment System (Hyperion) in the city of Los Angeles, Washburn explained. Hyperion discharges much more wastewater into the Santa Monica Bay than Tapia, but because Tapia’s discharge, unlike Hyperion’s, flows through the creek, lagoon and surf zone, “it has a different perceived impact,” Washburn concluded.
Tapia will have an opportunity to challenge the fine at a meeting of the RWQCB scheduled for Dec. 14, according to Dickerson.