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Sewage Spill Reignites War of Words

Channelkeeper and City Hall Argue Over Clean Water Settlement Agreement


Thursday, December 13, 2012

The 6,600-gallon sewage spill that closed Leadbetter Beach last week (since-reopened) touched off a renewed war of words between clean-water advocate Kira Redmond of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and Rebecca Bjork, City Hall’s water czar. At a testy showdown in City Council chambers, Redmond charged City Hall has violated the letter and spirit of the settlement arrived at earlier this year of a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit filed by Channelkeeper two years ago.

According to that agreement, Redmond charged, City Hall would be allowed no more than 18 spills in 2012; the Leadbetter spill, she noted, was the 19th this year. Likewise, she charged, City Hall committed to replacing an additional two miles of sewer pipe a year or spend $900,000 trying for five consecutive years. To date, she said, only 0.64 miles of pipe have been replaced this year and only $478,000 has been spent. Redmond complained that she’d been given only three days’ notice that Bjork planned to brief the City Council, accusing city staff of “perpetuating the pattern of uncooperative communication.”

City Attorney Steve Wiley insisted City Hall was living up to its agreement with Channelkeeper, and Bjork outlined an ambitious laundry list of changes her department had undertaken — or planned to initiate — to ensure that raw sewage doesn’t escape from broken sewer pipes and then seep into the city’s storm drain system. Her department, Bjork said, cleaned out 114 miles of the city’s 257 miles of sewer pipe last year and repaired four miles of vulnerable pipe. The council heard how pipe repair, rather than replacement, was a cheaper, more effective way to prevent sewage incidents. Bjork said tree roots were responsible for half this year’s spills and noted that tree roots from privately owned sewer laterals contributed to last week’s backup at Leadbetter Beach. Three years ago, she said, City Hall was averaging 40 spills a year; now it’s half that.

Much council discussion focused on the extent to which the 24,000 privately owned sewer laterals feeding into the city system contributed to the problem. Hilary Hauser of Heal the Ocean suggested the State Legislature might pass a bill requiring sewer laterals to be inspected as a condition of home sale, an idea bitterly opposed in the past by real estate brokers. For several years, City Hall offered property owners a rebate for inspection and replacement costs but stopped the $900,000-a-year program due to budget constraints. The program, said Councilmember Bendy White, was “porky” because area plumbers jacked up their rates and urged work that didn’t need to be done.

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