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Two officials of California Governor Davis' administration criticized the decision of the state Coastal Commission last week to oppose the city's bid for an extension of a waiver from the federal Clean Water Act.
San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy and other city officials have said the Coastal Commission's action, if not overturned, could force the city to spend billions of dollars installing needless upgrades to the treatment plants that pump partially treated sewage into the ocean.
In a strongly worded letter, California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols and Environmental Protection Secretary Winston Hickox told commission members that their action was "clearly beyond the scope of the commission's authority and without any legal basis." The two suggested that San Diego be allowed to resubmit its application immediately so that the commission can reconsider its action. The commission's next meeting is in San Diego next month.
Commissioner Shirley Dettloff, a strong opponent of the San Diego application, said she did not believe the commission had done anything wrong and that rejecting the San Diego waiver application was a step toward "ensuring clean water, which I thought was supposed to be our No. 1 priority."
"We felt we made a very responsible decision," said Dettloff, a member of the Huntington Beach City Council. "We're only asking for secondary [treatment of sewage], which most districts already have."
Officials in San Diego, where the Clean Water Act waiver has been an issue for two decades, were exultant at the Nichols-Hickox letter.
"I used to serve on the Coastal Commission," said Councilman Byron Wear, "so I can safely say that this group seems to be out of touch with reality at times."
The controversy--with legal, political and environmental aspects--could foreshadow an even more contentious debate next year, when the Orange County Sanitation District is also expected to request an extension of its Clean Water Act waiver.
With seven of its 12 members in attendance, the commission voted 6 to 1 at last week's meeting in Santa Barbara to reject San Diego's request to back its bid for another five-year waiver.
Fortified with studies from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego asserts that it deserves a waiver extension because sewage from its plants is not harming fish and other aquatic life.
The Clean Water Act requires that sewage treatment operators send sewage through a secondary treatment. But it contains a provision for a waiver if a city can prove that its sewage is not harming the environment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, reviewing the same data provided to the Coastal Commission, has tentatively approved San Diego for a waiver extension. The Coastal Commission staff also recommended approval.
By law, the commission can determine whether the city's waiver application is consistent with the Coastal Commission Act.
In rejecting the San Diego application, the commission suggested it would reconsider if the city agreed to increase monitoring of the effects of its sewage outflow, reduce the amount of solid waste and make greater use of reclaimed water.
But Nichols and Hickox said the commission has no authority to set conditions on waiver applications.
The commission's action was roundly criticized by two Democratic lawmakers from San Diego, Rep. Bob Filner and Assemblyman Juan Vargas, both of whom have worked on the city's behalf to secure a waiver.
Also last week, the Regional Water Quality Control Board endorsed the waiver application.