Regional water regulators on Tuesday said they will order the Irvine Co. to stop discharging water from a construction site through a system of pipes that leads onto a popular beach at Crystal Cove State Park.
The regulators said state law prohibits discharging runoff into Crystal Cove because it is listed by the state as biologically sensitive.
The pipe network was discovered last month by an activist, who crawled inside a culvert to document the source of increased runoff pooling on the beach.
The Irvine Co. confirmed this week that the pipe network the activist found drains its construction site on the bluffs above the beach. The company is building hundreds of luxury homes there.
As the ongoing dispute over the discharges played out, state inspectors were called back to that same culvert on Tuesday after an estimated 9,000 gallons of highly treated sewage used in irrigation flooded through the pipes overnight and carved a 10-foot-wide trench across the beach.
The decision to stop the runoff marks the first time the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board has asked the major developer to halt drainage discharges, said Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer, who has been with the board 19 years. He called this an unusual set of circumstances because of recent public outcry over runoff through Crystal Cove State Park beaches. No fines are expected, officials said.
"In our initial investigation, there's no indication of any negligence or intent," Berchtold said.
The state's regional water boards have recently increased their staffs and stepped up enforcement, which some say is leading to increased regulatory oversight.
Experts are increasingly pointing to runoff as a prime culprit in coastal pollution.
"What it comes down to is that they're going to have to eliminate this discharge," said Mark E. Smythe, environmental specialist with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board.
An Irvine Co. spokesman said the developer would discuss the issue with water officials at a meeting Thursday.
Both the regional board staff and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are looking into the culvert drainage problem.
"We're still investigating. We need to get these diagrams of the storm water pipes and determine what the source of this water is," said Steve Fuller, senior environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, during an inspection of the culvert area Tuesday.
Inspectors focused Tuesday on the late-night spill that carved an 18-inch-deep gully roughly 10 feet wide from the culvert to the ocean.
The water apparently came from an Irvine Co. building site on the bluffs above the park. It escaped when three bolts broke on an irrigation line meter, causing the meter to rupture, said Berchtold of the regional water board.
He said that based on his agency's initial investigation, the water was highly treated sewage effluent. Such reclaimed water is not approved for drinking but is allowed for irrigation and does not cause health hazards if people come in contact with it, he said.
Irvine Co. spokesman Rich Elbaum referred questions about the spill to the Irvine Ranch Water District, saying it was a water district meter that broke and caused the spill. IRWD spokeswoman Joyce Wegner-Gwidt agreed late Tuesday afternoon that an IRWD meter had ruptured, but said it was on a line whose ownership could not immediately be determined.
The rupture occurred during a sensitive time for the Irvine Co. and water regulators. Activists with the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove crawled into an existing state Caltrans culvert under Pacific Coast Highway and discovered that new concrete piping had been constructed running up the hill.
Representatives of Orange County CoastKeeper, another environmental group, presented the alliance's photographs from inside the pipes to the regional board staff, prompting its investigation.
Elbaum of the Irvine Co. said earlier this week that the pipe system is a storm drain for a portion of its Crystal Cove development now under construction.
Elbaum said this week he believes the Irvine Co. is complying with its permits at the construction site, but that the company is open to discussing the matter with the regional board. The culvert discharges onto the beach just above the high-tide line at Crystal Cove, which the state has designated as one of 34 areas of biological concern along the California coast. Discharges directly into such areas are illegal under the 1997 Ocean Plan.
Smythe, the regional water inspector, said his agency just learned the developer had joined pipes to the older Caltrans box culvert on the beach.
"We were not aware that had been tapped into by the Irvine Co.," said Smythe. He said that when agency staff inquired about the culvert last fall, the Irvine Co. called it a Caltrans culvert and told them, "You'll have to talk to Caltrans about that."
A Caltrans spokeswoman said Tuesday that she is researching the matter.
[Clips from original newspaper articles appear here for educational purposes and purposes of comment, rather than commercial purposes. They are reprinted under the fair use doctrine of international copyright law. Copyright Los Angeles Times]
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