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Environment—Record sewage spill fine may be spent locally

San Diego’s Municipal Wastewater Department will soon find out how much of a $3.4 million fine recently levied against it can be spent locally, and how much of it will have to go to Sacramento.

A committee of Regional Water Quality Control Board members met Sept. 27 to discuss possible supplemental environmental projects the wastewater department could fund locally in lieu of paying a fine to the state Water Pollution Cleanup and Abatement Account. These projects would pay for cleanup of the San Diego River, said John Robertus, executive officer of the board.

The wastewater department’s record $3.4 million fine was levied in response to a massive sewage spill earlier this year. That spill, which went undetected for a week between Feb. 21 and Feb. 28, released an estimated 34 million gallons of sewage into the San Diego River, Robertus said.

The committee’s report will be presented to the full board at its Oct. 11 meeting. The board will consider allowing the wastewater district to spend about 60 percent of the fine, or $2 million, on supplemental environmental projects locally. The remainder would go to the state fund, he said.

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A list of 30 projects will be presented to the board. Of these, five are strong contenders for funding at a total price tag of $1.2 million. Another three projects, costing $700,000, will also be considered, Robertus said.

The wastewater department may be allowed to spend its fine money on a total of nine projects, Robertus said.

There are several criteria the board will look at in making its decisions of which projects it will select among the 30 on the list. For a supplemental environmental project to be approved, it must be above and beyond what the Metropolitan Wastewater Department would be expected to do on its own. It also must go toward cleaning up the San Diego River , the area affected in the February sewage spill, he said.Thus, items that rank high on the list of desirable projects, such as eliminating caulerpa algae and maintaining the mouth of the Los Pe & #324;asquitos Lagoon, will not be selected, Robertus said.

Robertus was not able to mention which of the 30 projects would most likely be accepted. The recommendations of the committee were scheduled to be released Sept. 29, after press time.

Ron Kole, spokesman for the wastewater department, said the 30 projects were selected on the direction of the City Council. District officials later learned that some of the items on the list did not match the criteria as stated.

Nonetheless, Kole plans to present all 30 projects to the board at its Oct. 11 meeting. He was hoping that all of the $3.4 million could be spent locally.

Carolyn Chase, environmental editor of the San Diego Earth Times, said it was good that the money can be spent locally. She cited a nutrient study for the San Diego River as an important priority.

“It’s good to see they’re considering getting the fine into the region, where they can make a difference,” she said.

As for the money that goes into the state account, it’s also possible that these funds can come back to the San Diego region at some point in the future to finance additional projects, Chase said.

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