What did Blake Anderson do in the face of relentless complaints about the massive sewage plume stretching along the Orange County coastline? The Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) general manager hired a high-priced polling firm, which told the OCSD board of directors that the few county residents who are paying attention overwhelmingly approve of flushing massive poopage into the ocean.
Anderson's public-relations gambit was typical of the OCSD, which has a history of manipulating information to suit its purposes. Last week, the agency was caught again when the Orange County grand jury lambasted OCSD for withholding for nearly six years results of a publicly funded 1996 study of bacterial contamination near the shoreline—a study that may have illustrated the need for better sanitizing the 240 million gallons of partially treated sewage piped offshore every day.
"All I want to know," said sanitation board member and Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, "is how much we pissed away on another poll."
The answer: it is part of a $45,000 contract with Probolsky & Associates, paid for by OCSD ratepayers.
Beth Krom, a board director and Irvine mayor pro tem, criticized the wording of questions posed by pollsters, which she described as "sometimes vague and nearly always leading."
The poll generated positive opinions about the sanitation district by failing to mention several salient facts and by translating others into favorable terms. In one case, pollsters asked respondents whether they would rather treat sewage at a cost of about $400 million—a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in sewage bills—or wait for further study.
Respondents chose further study, 84 percent to 8 percent. But would they have made the same decision if they knew that the rate increases of 50 percent to 100 percent actually translated into 14 cents per day? And that OC rates would still be lower than the state average?
Nor does the poll mention that the huge sewage plume—now six miles long, three miles wide and 100 feet thick—crept within a half-mile of Newport Beach on Feb. 11. And it never mentions that Orange County is one of just 35 sanitation districts out of about 16,000 nationwide that uses a federal waiver to avoid full treatment of its sewage.
Anderson became OCSD general manager two years ago after a 20-year rise through the agency's ranks. And he's inexplicably desperate for the OCSD to retain its waiver. That waiver expires in 2003, and a June vote by the 25-member board of directors will determine whether the district applies for another.
Although the OCSD board is appointed, its members—called directors—are mostly city council members from around Orange County who must eventually face voters in their hometowns. Mounting political pressure and environmental evidence against the waiver are making some of those city officials squeamish.
Commissioning a poll—and presenting the results immediately after another excoriating session of public commentary on April 24—seemed intended to provide political cover for the agency's directors.
The numbers were comforting. According to Probolsky & Associates, 72 percent of county residents "support the release of treated wastewater 4.5 miles offshore." Additionally, said the pollsters, 84 percent support the OCSD's current plan to "conduct scientific studies to determine the cause of beach closures."
The reactions of Krom and Cook are not surprising, inasmuch as they represent cities that have already voted to oppose the waiver. But the poll didn't sit right with Fullerton City Councilman Don Bankhead, either. He pointed out that the poll's emphasis on public opinion contradicted Anderson's long admonishment to "wait for the science"—that is, the results of a $5 million water-quality study undertaken by the OCSD last summer.
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"We've been waiting and waiting and waiting for the science, but so far, we haven't received any from the district," Bankhead said with some irritation. "If we had to vote today, I'd probably have to vote against the waiver."
The results of the long-awaited study are expected to be presented to the OCSD board on May 15, and a vote on whether or not to apply for another 301 (h) waiver is scheduled for June.
In the wake of the criticism from the Orange County grand jury and the slanted tone of the Probolsky & Associates poll, some directors also expressed concern over whether the results of the long-awaited OCSD study would be believable. "That's what I'm hearing from my constituents," said one.
Another director suggested, off the record, that the timing of the report and the vote appeared "choreographed."