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No fine lines for water board

‘Stringent’ guidelines leave seemingly any organization subjest to fees — including the board

Posted: September 11, 2010 10:07 p.m.
Updated: September 12, 2010 4:30 a.m.

Water-law enforcers have hit the Santa Clarita Valley with some of the largest fines in Southern California during the past few years, including a half-million-dollar fine against the city and close to a million dollars in penalties against Six Flags, The Signal has recently learned.

Since 2007, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has issued $2.47 million in fines here.

“The city is not a polluter,” said Kevin Tonoian, technology services manager for the city of Santa Clarita. “And that is something we’ve made quite clear to the regional board on a regular basis.”

Two years ago, almost to the day, the regional board found the city guilty of polluting the Santa Clara River with excessive amounts of contaminants, including salty chloride and salty sulfates.

The nine-member board slapped the city with a fine of $231,000, but over the course of a year, the amount was hiked up to $525,000.

The state began a crackdown on water abuses in June 2006 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created the Office of Enforcement to help the state water board collect its water fines.

“We are contesting the decision,” Tonoian said. “We are continuing to talk to the regional board, and they are of a differing opinion.”

Landslide risk
People living in 446 homes on Shangri-La Drive sit poised on a hill overlooking Canyon Country on the northwest corner of Sierra Highway and Soledad Canyon Road.

Groundwater under their homes — like the water in almost all the homes in the Santa Clarita Valley — contains naturally occurring salty sulfates and chloride.

Two water pumps in the area work to ensure the hillside is kept dry and the homeowners remain safe, Tonoian explained. The pumps are located at areas called “Drainage Benefit Assessment Areas 6 and 18.”

The water taken from the ground is discharged away from the hillside and released back into the Santa Clara River.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board fined the city for discharging water that contained too much chloride even though it came directly out of the ground and was put directly back into it again.

“You and I could go down there with our cups in hand and drink that water,” Tonoian said. “It is naturally occurring groundwater that is drinkable.”

However, the regional board ruled that the city dumped polluted water into the Santa Clara River.

On Sept. 3, 2003, the city of Santa Clarita was hit with a $69,000 fine for exactly the same thing — only now the fine is seven times what it was then.

After the first violation, the board granted the city a five-year permit — called a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit — and said it was all right to discharge 250 milligrams of chloride for every liter of water discharged into the river for five years.

In July 2008, however, the five-year permit ended, and so did the five-year grace period. The groundwater at Shangri-La was suddenly expected to contain no more than 100 milligrams per liter.

The California Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Department of Public Health say it is all right for people to drink water containing 250 milligrams per liter of chloride.

“The whole reason the permit was required was at the insistence the Shangri-La groundwater be brought to the surface,” Tonoian pointed out.

“If we didn’t do it, (there was a) potential for groundwater to accumulate and then we’re talking landslides.”

The city will continue to fight the fine, he said.

On the other side of town, a heavier fine was being handed out.

No amusement
As the summer was coming to close in 2008, the Texas-based Six Flags Entertainment Corporation was hit with a water-polluting fine of $945,000, apparently the largest water fine ever issued in Santa Clarita Valley.

In a carefully worded statement issued by Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor, park officials called the regional water quality guidelines “stringent.”

The fine was issued when the park, situated near the Santa Clara River, violated conditions of its permit, specifically for exceeding chloride levels in the water it discharged.

A statement emailed to The Signal by public relations manager Sue Carpenter reads:

“Like many municipalities and large businesses in California, we continue to strive to meet the stringent guidelines set by the Water Quality Control Board.

“We have been proactive in our efforts to control chloride levels and will continue to look for ways to enhance our water-treatment process.”

Before the year was out, the regional board handed the amusement park an additional fine of $6,000, pushing the park’s total penalties over the $950,000 mark.

For the regional water board, however, the issuing of fines didn’t stop there.

The board fined the people who treat our wastewater. It fined the people who treat our drinking water.
Board fines itself

The board even fined itself $99,000 in October 2008 for having exceeded effluent levels discharged at the William E. Warne Power Plant, which is owned and operated by the California Department of Water Resources — the same board that oversees and reviews regional board decisions.

E-mails left with the state board for a response and explanation were not answered.

The polluted water discharged by the state power plant entered the Santa Clara River watershed near Pyramid Lake.

A Castaic polluter not too far from Pyramid Lake was issued a $520,000 fine.

The Paradise Ranch Mobile Park was found to have violated conditions of its permit in June 2007 and fined $130,022, initially. That penalty quadrupled, however, to more than half a million dollars.

The park, which is home to more than 90 mobile homes, has a long history of water problems. Water has to be trucked into the site and then treated on location.

The regional board issued a hefty fine of $1.02 million in 2006 for having failed to follow state guidelines on how much chloride was being discharged there.

Excessive amounts of brine from salt-based water softeners at the park were what prompted the 2003 fines.

Santiago Associates LLC, the company that owned the park, sold it in May to a firm called Residential Fund 1347 LLC. Santiago Associates could not be reached for comment.

Water board fined
Closer to home, each of the two wastewater treatment plants operated by the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District — one in Valencia, the other in Saugus — netted fines of $171,000 and $174,000, respectively.

In December 2008, the Castaic Lake Water Agency, which supplies Santa Clarita Valley residents with about half their drinking water, was hit with three separate fines totaling $9,000 while it was trying to repair its reservoirs.

“In February 2008, CLWA was performing repair and maintenance work on the floating covers over our treated-water reservoirs at the Rio Vista Water Treatment Plant,” Brian J. Folsom, the agency’s engineering and operations manager, told The Signal in an e-mail.

“To facilitate the repair work, CLWA had to drain residual water from the reservoirs,” he explained. “In the process of draining the reservoirs, the water that was released exceeded (regional board) limits for chlorine residual, BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) and settleable solids. The fine was $3,000 for each violation — hence the $9,000 total.”

The discharges found their way into the Santa Clara River.

The topic of river water quality has become a hotly contested subject in the last couple of months as salty chloride levels continue to spur public debate over proposed sewer rate hikes needed to pay for a costly salt-ridding plant.

The river runs through the Santa Clarita Valley, where treated wastewater is added before it flows into Ventura County, where it’s used to irrigate crops.

Among the crops are chloride-sensitive strawberries and avocados. Farmers expect to receive salt-free river water according to standards set by the 1972 Clean Water Act and enforced by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Current plans call for the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District to build a $210 million reverse-osmosis plant by 2015 in order to comply with the act and avoid being hit with fines.



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