240 Million Gallons a Day

Photo by Jeanne RiceThe bad-ass stat of 2001: the 240 million gallons of undertreated sewage that Orange County flushes into the local ocean every day could fill Anaheim Stadium three times.

This is not hyperbole, and doesn't that suddenly sound like a great name for a toilet-cleaning product? This is a relentless tidal wave of shit and piss and so-so-so much more roaring through a huge pipe at the rate of 10 million gallons per hour, spewing four and a half miles off the coast between Newport and Huntington. The bad-ass stat of 2001? This is sewage—what could be badder or assier?

It's a year this month since the formation of the Ocean Outfall Group (OOG), which has been harping on the image of Anaheim Stadium-as-outhouse. Hoping to drum up support for their plan to clean up the sewage before it goes into the ocean, OOG activists have been systematically describing stadiums of shit during public-comment sessions at city council meetings across Orange County.

This talent for vivid description isn't all that sets OOG apart, however. The power of its activism comes not so much from grassroots as from computer chips: it organized on the Internet.

"We have no bylaws, we make no agendas, we keep no minutes—because we don't have any meetings," says Jan Vandersloot, a Newport Beach dermatologist who helped found the OOG. "We haven't spent time applying for nonprofit status—we just communicate through e-mail. This way, we can round up people, attract them to a cause, and eliminate the time factor that discourages so many of them. That's what is giving momentum to our plan."

Actually, it's not the OOG's plan—it's United States law. Next year makes three decades since Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which mandates that all sewage receive primary and secondary treatment before it is disbursed into waterways. That was in 1972, and Orange County has never come close to compliance.

The Orange County Sanitation District operates under a 301 (h) waiver from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. This permits the OCSD to dump substandard wastewater—a 50-50 mixture of primarily and secondarily treated sewage—into the ocean. The waiver is technically temporary. But it has already expired three time, and each time, the EPA has granted extensions. The current waiver expires in 2003, and OCSD is signaling its intention to apply for another five-year extension, insisting that the constant flow of sewage is not damaging the ocean.

Members of the OOG are asking the OCSD not to apply for another waiver and instead to use its massive financial reserves and a hike in sewer bills to bring the county's disgusting sewage into compliance with the Clean Water Act's less disgusting standards. The OCSD has reserves of $550 million—it's the wealthiest special district in California—and Orange County's per-household sewer bill of $78 per year is far below the state average of $185 per year.

But the administration of the OCSD is one of the most entrenched of Orange County's public agencies. Like his predecessors, general manager Blake Anderson came up through the ranks and often seems more interested in bulking up the OCSD's impressive finances—the agency makes money on loans to other institutions—than in attending to the quality of the county's water.

"It's a peculiarly inverse situation, in which the OCSD has more money and does less sewage treatment than anybody in California, if not the nation," says Vandersloot. "The OCSD is one of only 36 sanitation agencies in the country that have 301 (h) waivers—out of a total of some 16,000. And it is by far the largest."

Meanwhile, it's hard to assess the size of the OOG. There are 170 addresses on the e-mail list Vandersloot accesses when he's ready to transmit his latest communique.

"But not all 170 are members," Vandersloot reminds anyone who sounds too impressed. "Some of them are people who are interested, for one reason or another, but not active."

Typically, between three and 15 people turn out when the OOG shows up at a city council meeting. And, so far, resolutions in support of their plan have been adopted by only four cities—Seal Beach, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa.

"To get even one city is a big deal," Vandersloot asserts to anyone who doesn't sound impressed enough. "We have to fight tooth and nail for each city—and against years and years of political influence, environmental ignorance and the plain old status quo. This is not something that elected officials automatically buy into."

The OOG needs resolutions from nine more cities—for a total of 13—to achieve a majority on the 25-member OCSD board of directors, which is composed of representatives from the cities it serves. And it needs them by the end of 2002.

"It's not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination," acknowledges Vandersloot, "because it's basically asking people to pay more for their sewer bills. That's not a popular position."

But when you think of three Anaheim Stadiums, filled to the brim with the same stuff that you . . . well . . . ewwwww!


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