Regional water regulators on Thursday postponed ordering the Irvine Co. to halt controversial discharges into the ocean at Crystal Cove, concluding that higher-ups in Sacramento must decide if such releases are illegal.
The turnabout came Thursday after the developer questioned whether state law indeed forbids the discharge of runoff and storm water into biologically sensitive areas, such as the waters off Crystal Cove State Park.
"We want to comply with the law in every respect," said Sat Tamaribuchi, Irvine Co. vice president of environmental affairs. "There's obviously some grayness in here that it takes further analysis."
The impending decision by the California Water Resources Control Board could have implications for other landowners and cities discharging runoff into biologically fragile areas along the 1,100-mile California coast.
Scientists in recent years have grown increasingly concerned that such runoff--an unsavory mix that can contain pesticides, fertilizer, waste oil and animal feces--is a significant cause of offshore water pollution.
The debate arose when environmental activists reported their suspicions that the Irvine Co. might be discharging runoff from a home-building project through a culvert draining onto a popular beach at the state park. The activists complained to the regional water board for the area, where officials said earlier this week they would order a halt to the discharges.
Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency based in Riverside, said Thursday that documents provided by the Irvine Co. show that the developer received the required approvals for the drainage system. Another regional board employee said Tuesday that his office had not known the Irvine Co. had linked pipes to a Caltrans-owned culvert on the beach. But Berchtold said Thursday, "There was no attempt on their part to hide anything from anyone in that process."
Representatives of the Irvine Co. met Thursday morning with water board officials, who then decided to seek guidance about whether such discharges are illegal.
"Before we make that decision, we want to get some feedback from the state board," Berchtold said.
Craig Wilson, chief counsel for the state board, said Wednesday that to his knowledge, the board has not dealt before with the issue of urban runoff into biologically significant areas.
"I'm quite surprised," said Laura Davick of the environmental group Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove. "What I find to be appalling is that the regional board is not going to take a stronger stand on these discharges when just two days ago they were informing us that this was a direct discharge and that it should stop."
Recent tests of water samples from the culvert show the water contains elevated bacteria levels, said Monica Mazur, environmental health specialist with the Orange County Health Care Agency.
The uncertainty over the legality of the Irvine Co. discharges centers on rules intended to protect significant offshore marine areas, including water off Point Reyes north of San Francisco, Monterey Bay and Newport Beach. The state has designated 34 "areas of special biological significance," with special rules intended to protect their water quality.
Although a state law forbids waste discharges in such areas, regional water officials want to clarify whether storm water and urban runoff are considered waste.
Specifically, documents provided by the state Water Resources Control Board show an apparent conflict between the 1997 state Ocean Plan and 1999 guidelines overseeing discharges into the 34 areas.
The 1997 plan prohibits the discharge of "waste" into those areas, defining waste as "a discharger's total discharge of whatever origin."
But guidelines revised in 1999 say simply that discharges of storm water and urban runoff will be controlled "to the extent practicable." More stringent rules are applied to sewage and industrial discharge.
Latham & Watkins, a law firm representing the Irvine Co. in the discharge matter, wrote the state board for clarification of the language.
"That [language] really led to some confusion," Tamaribuchi said Thursday. "It's an issue they really need to address from a statewide policy standpoint."
In addition, Tamaribuchi said, his firm had already decided to install filters in the storm-drain system to improve water quality.
Crystal Cove residents complained Tuesday evening of muddy water flooding through the pipe system onto the beach. That flow occurred after a mechanical failure during street-cleaning in a 99-home development called Seabourn at Crystal Cove being built by Standard Pacific Homes, project manager Thomas Olson said Thursday. The firm often builds homes on land bought from the Irvine Co.
Under its water discharge permit, the home builder cannot let sediment-laden water flow into the storm drains, Olson said. Before street cleaning, workers try to prevent such accidents by piling sandbags around storm-drain inlets and plugging underground pipes, he said. But on Tuesday, a brick-and-mortar plug began leaking, allowing less than 6,000 gallons of water to flow into the storm drains, he said.
Standard Pacific is cooperating with the regional board's staff in investigating the incident, Olson said.
[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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