Sewage and Other Unsavory Matters

I missed the August 19th City Council meeting. On that day, we went to the Getty Museum’s exhibit “Power and Pathos, Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World”. It was amazing. The sculptures capture emotions you can see on living people daily. I especially enjoyed the sculpture of a youth with a bored expression observable in most high school classrooms today. The price is right—admission is free, although parking is $15 per car, and you need to get there before 11:00 am to find parking availability. It means dealing with the awful L.A. traffic, but worth it.

I watched the video of the August 19th meeting, well, part of the video, up to the end of item 13: Adoption of Mitigated Negative Declaration for the Southwest Sewer Realignment Project. Basically, the city wants to put in newer and bigger sewer lines that will be gravity flow, and eliminate the need for three sewer lift stations, saving the City money. See for more information. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that this will afford better sewer service to the Oak Creek Development. The new sewer will pass over the infamous Chatham toxic plume. I wrote about this development when it was first approved by the Council in March of this year: .

Escondido Neighbors United had some problems with this Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND). They wrote to the City with a list of their objections: . Three neighbors reiterated some of their objections at the meeting. Eva Salazar, who lives on Felicita, noted that the MND did not address all of the toxic compounds found in the area of the plume. Laura Hunter, representing Escondido Neighbors United, pointed out that the Risk Management Plan and the Health and Safety Plan were not yet prepared, and making a decision without those plans in place was irresponsible. She said it was not a matter of “if” the construction of the new lines would hit groundwater, but “when”. The third speaker, Carolina Valder, also lives on Felicita. She too criticized the MND for not analyzing for all the volatile organic compounds that have been found in the plume making the health risk assessment fatally flawed. Where was the risk assessment for the families in the area she asked? She too objected to the lack of a risk management plan as yet.

Mayor Sam Abed did ask the staff to respond to the speakers. Deputy Planning Director Bill Martin said that it was common for a Risk Management Plan to be adopted after the approval of a project. The City had contracted with TetraTech to produce the health risk evaluation for workers who came into contact with either contaminated soil vapors or contaminated ground water, and that TetraTech had found the risk of such encounters to be orders of magnitude below health risk levels. Michael Crews of TetraTech said that his company had tested for all the plume toxic compounds, and had found none at any dangerous level, all, at least, three orders of magnitude below a health risk level for workers on the sewer project, and therefore, a much lower level for neighbors hundreds of feet away. Evidently TetraTech did not consider it essential to include this information in their reports.

Abed, satisfied that the pesky complaints made by the public had been answered, avowed that the project would meet CEQA standards and that CEQA standards were the strictest imaginable. Councilman John Masson was sure that the Risk Management Plan would handle any problems that might be associated with rising ground water. Councilwoman Olga Diaz asked Martin how long it usually took to prepare a Risk Management Plan. Four to five weeks, responded Martin. Well why not wait until it was finished so the Council and public could be reassured that it would be sufficient? Masson responded that such a plan was just the protocol of what workers would do in the unlikely event they encountered contaminated ground water, and that the risk to workers had already been determined—there was none. Diaz then noted that the Oak Creek development would involve major road improvements to Felicita—could not this be coordinated with the sewer project? Director of Utilities Chris McKinney answered that it was anticipated that construction of this sewer project would probably begin before the end of the year, and would be completed before the Oak Creek project. Diaz observed that it would not significantly delay things if the Council waited until the Risk Management Plan was developed to approve the MND. She felt that the neighbors had legitimate concerns. “Let me explain” Masson condescended to Diaz, such a plan would just be a description of what the workers would do if they should encounter ground water—not the sort of details the Council should mess with.

Councilman Mike Morasco then dismissed the concerns expressed by the public as being based on emotion, that no amount of expert, scientific evidence would satisfy. Councilman Ed Gallo echoed Morasco’s views, claiming that the staff and experts who had prepared the MND were more knowledgeable that either the Council or anyone in the audience. If you’re not going to believe the experts why hire them, he questioned. Abed added that the Council should be concerned with policy level matters, not operational matters. Diaz observed that the public response was very informed, and their request to see the Risk Management Plan quite reasonable. Masson than said the Council should go ahead and approve the project now, because nothing in such a plan would change his mind about approving the project.

At this point, inaudible on the video, it became apparent that someone in the audience was speaking. Abed, surprisingly, opened the public hearing for him to come forward and speak. Turned out to be the husband of Carolina Valder, Marcus Hecht-nielsen. Evidently Morasco’s and Gallo’s comments riled him a bit. “Are you a chemist?” he asked? My wife is, he informed the Council. She understood the MND very well, as well as any of the staff or consultants. He found the belittling of the public by the Council very upsetting, saying he thought it was “convenient” that the City was making these improvements just in time for the Oak Creek project. His advice to the Council was to leave the County alone—to stay out of the County.

After assuring everyone that he understood that the neighbors had valid concerns, Abed called for the vote, and the measure was adopted with four yes votes, Diaz voting no.


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