It would be nice to think that major public policy decisions
are based on sound science and rational thinking rather than
emotionalism and scare tactics. Of course, the reality is
far different, as any aficionado of the political process
This reality is especially stark when dealing with environmental
issues, where emoting replaces thinking, and where the neuroses
of activists drives policy more than anything else. It's one
thing to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars to, say,
actually clean up some land or a waterway, quite another thing
to spend the same amount to accomplish little more than boosting
the self-esteem of activists.
Yet here in Orange County, residents are doing just that:
paying additional fees to fund a costly new program that cleans
something that doesn't need to be cleaned as a sop to vocal
environmental activists who are impervious to scientific data
proving them wrong.
It's policy as psychology, yet it's costing taxpayers plenty.
The program I refer to goes by the name of "full secondary
treatment," and it relates to sewage treatment. The story
about how Orange County embraced it is a disturbing reminder
of how hard it is for politicians to stand up against organized
interest groups that fly the flag of mom, apple pie and environmental
In the summer of 2002, the Orange County Sanitation District
board voted 13-12 to embrace this extra level of treatment
for sewage the district pumps 4.2 miles out past the Huntington
Beach coast. Since 1985, Orange County had operated under
what is known as the "waiver" - a section of the federal Clean
Water Act that allowed it to treat half of its sewage to primary
treatment standards and the other half to secondary
standards, rather than all of it to secondary standards.
Primary standards remove "70 percent of bacteria and microscopic
solids," according to a Register article, whereas secondary
treatment removes 95 percent of the bacteria. The biggest
particle released, by the way, is about the size of a grain
of sand, yet critics of the arrangement made it sound as if
the district was pumping untreated turds into the ocean.
In fact, organized environmental interest groups and their
allies on coastal city councils argued deceptively that the
sewage plume, as it is politely called, floated back to the
beach, and was the cause of the high bacteria counts that
routinely shut down the surf at Surf City. It was a plausible
argument, but testing by OCSD proved fairly decisively that
it wasn't true. The likely culprit, researchers argued, was
not the treated sewage but urban run-off carried down the
Santa Ana River especially following a storm.
The district even treated the plume in the ocean with disinfectant,
thus killing 80 percent of the bacteria. The result: nada.
In other words, bacteria levels were still high at the beach
even after the bacteria was killed in the plume, so clearly
the plume wasn't causing the bacteria spikes. It didn't matter.
The environmentalists had an issue - and they were organized
to pursue it.
The district assembled a blue-ribbon panel in 2002, explains
Blake Anderson, OCSD general manager. The panel found no observable
link between the sewage plume and beach pollution, although
in the interest of fairness the panelists said they could
not unequivocally state that the sewage caused none of the
Such calm, informed voices were drowned out by the environmentalists
who, in my view at the time, seemed impervious to any sort
of rational argument. "There was a growing community that
said, 'We insist on full secondary treatment,'" said Anderson.
They not only showed up by the hundreds at the sanitation
district board meetings, but the busload at council meetings
in local cities.
Norman Eckenrode, the Placentia councilman who chaired the
board at the time of the secondary-treatment vote, said "They
were saying the same thing over and over again. ... We're
killing fish, we're the cause of the beach closures, people
are going to die." It wasn't true, Eckenrode added, and referred
to these activists as "environmental wackos."
I agree with his description, although I also blame weak-kneed
politicians who echoed the claims. Republican supervisors
Tom Wilson and Jim Silva ardently defended secondary treatment
in a July 28, 2002 Register column, making an emotional argument:
"The board of directors of the sanitation district has to
recognize the devastating impacts of polluting the ocean ...
even four miles out. There is a significant financial requirement,
but saving our coast is more important than dollars."
But what if those dollars don't "save" the coast, but merely
build an unnecessary project?
The latest evidence is in, and it only confirms evidence
that was widely available at the time of the vote. "Researchers
at the University of California, Irvine, report ... that most
of the bacteria that pollutes the surf zone at Huntington
come from the Santa Ana Rivers and the Talbert March," reported
the Register's Pat Brennan last week. Another study released
that week "shows that over the course of a year, less than
one percent of the bacterial contamination from storm drains
is captured by systems designed to divert the polluted water
into sewer systems."
The co-author of the studies, Professor Stanley B. Grant,
originally theorized that the plume was heading to shore,
but then he changed his view after research concluded that
urban run-off was the culprit. His American Chemical Society
studies released last week provide extensive backup to his
"Surprise, surprise," said Mark Leyes, the Garden Grove councilman
who had joined Eckenrode and 10 other board members in opposing
the costly new treatment plan. "It was always more about politics
than science. The stars aligned to bring that about. A very
vocal group was impressive in its continual pressure to the
board and letters to the editor."
The cost for full secondary treatment? Anderson pins the
number at about $271 million plus an additional $10 million
a year to operate the new system, once it is in place in about
a decade. Eckenrode said the actual vote authorizes $400 million
in costs, and argues the final cost 10 years from now will
be over $500 million.
Last summer, the OCSD board voted in favor of a 15 percent
annual rate hike on sewer bills for the next five years to
pay for $2 billion worth of infrastructure improvements, a
substantial portion of which is related to the secondary treatment
Soon, ratepayers might be looking at a push to increase rates
to pay for the real and necessary solution to the beach-closing
problem: measures to divert urban run-off into water treatment
facilities. Anderson agrees that another proposed rate hike
is possible, but pins the run-off clean-up costs at about
$30 million. Eckenrode, who is still on the board but is no
longer the chairman, believes that to fix the run-off problem
correctly, the county will have to pay at least $100 million.
He said he would like to have a new vote on secondary treatment,
but predicts he would not even get a second on any motion
to reopen this old debate.
It is too late to revisit the issue now. The waiver, for
instance, cannot be reinstated, according to the OCSD staff.
And we're on to other things. Anderson is right that the county
needs to move forward to deal with urban run-off, especially
given the latest evidence.
But I'm left shaking my head at the fact that Orange County
residents will pay several hundred million dollars for a system
that is, by most measures, unnecessary. Of course, it is necessary
to make the county's "environmental community" feel better
about themselves and their beaches. In this nutty day and
age, that probably makes it worth the cost.