Violations at WRF Plant Site Fixed; No Fines Issued

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

January 28, 2022

This aerial photo taken by a drone shows the Water Reclamation Facility treatment plant jobsite as it was last August. Photo courtesy Carollo Engineers

The City of Morro Bay has in recent months been addressing violations of its discharge permit for the new sewer treatment plant from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and while the water board indicated there would be hefty fines for non-compliance, the matter was resolved amicably.

It started with a site inspection by the RWQCB last Oct. 20, when inspectors with the water board visited the Water Reclamation Facility project’s treatment plant jobsite located above the terminus of South Bay Boulevard at Hwy 1. 

The inspection was to check with compliance with the project’s “National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” (NPDES) permit, and a “Stormwater Discharges Associated with Construction Activities” permit as well. Both were actually issued by the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento with the Central Coast RWQCB in charge of compliance.

The water board inspectors noted several issues with the initial inspection and five days later, on Oct. 25, a significant rainstorm prompted them to issue a “Notice of Violation” (NOV) on Nov. 8 with a second notice Dec. 20.

In essence the City was dinged for “insufficient erosion and sediment controls, and additional soil cover at the WRF site,” reads a news release from Public Works Director, Greg Kwolek. 

The City’s permit required “dischargers” to put in “effective soil cover for inactive areas and all finished slopes,” reads the NOV. The permit requires the project use “best management practices,” which means adhering to industry standards.

“During the Oct. 20, 2021 onsite inspection,” the water board’s notice reads, “Central Coast Water Board staff observed graded slopes without adequate sediment or erosion controls. The site had large areas of exposed soils in active and non-active areas of construction. Erosional features such as gullies and rills were noted on lower slopes adjacent to a nearby drainage.

“Following the inspection, approximately 2.5 inches of rain fell at the site on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.”

That rain created even more gullies through the project site and “sediment accumulation in the site’s concrete swales and turbid water discharging from the site,” the water board said. “Observations from our onsite inspection and review of the rain event inspection report show that the sediment and erosion controls were not effective or adequate to prevent significant erosion and sediment discharge.”

Quality testing of the rain runoff from the site also showed too much turbidity, and another violation of the permit. A follow-up inspection on Dec. 10 noted continued violations and called for more ground cover and straw waddles in a second NOV issued in December.

The issues prompted the City’s construction contractors — Filanc/Black & Veatch — to take corrective actions, even though the City’s name was on the NOVs and Carollo Engineering is project manager.

“The City of Morro Bay’s Water Reclamation Facility,” reads a news release from Kwolek, “is subject to regulatory oversight and enforcement by the Regional Water Quality Control Board for storm water pollution prevention plan compliance. However, the City’s contract with the design-build contractor places the responsibility for meeting regulatory requirements, addressing any enforcement actions or Notices of Violations, and payment of any fines associated with SWPPP compliance on the design-build contractor.”

To correct the matter, the contractors have, “installed several miles of straw waddle and silt fence,” Kwolek said, “and hundreds of tons of import gravel, aggregate base and other temporary road surface materials.” They have also submitted a written technical report — complete with photos and descriptions of the actions taken. The jobsite covers some 17 acres.

As for the ground cover, Kwolek explained that they hydro-seeded many of the areas in the NOV, but with no rain, the seed didn’t take. “The design-build contractor again hydro-seeded applicable areas in November 2021, in advance of the December 2021 rains,” Kwolek said. “There is an expectation that this second round of hydro-seeding will be more effective due to the recent rains and due to regrowth observed as of the date of this notice [Jan. 22].”

The NOVs point out that if the violations — essentially violations of the Clean Water Act — were not corrected they could hand down administrative fines for up to $10,000 a day for each violation. “Alternatively, a court may impose civil liability of up to $25,000 for each day the violation occurs.”

With the corrective actions taken, the specter of huge fines hanging over the job have been avoided.

Estero Bay News asked the water board if they were satisfied? Phillip Hammer, a senior environmental scientist with the board’s Stormwater Program said, “We reviewed the City’s latest report and found it to be satisfactory. While the report shows the City corrected the violations we identified, the City needs to take continual actions to control erosion and sediment, in order to adjust to changing construction site conditions and remain in compliance.”

So far the water board has inspected the WRF plant site three times and Hammer added, “We plan to conduct an additional inspection this winter. For some perspective, we regulate approximately 600 construction sites at any given time with limited staff.”

Kwolek clarified the NOVs. “If the regional board identifies concerns, the City is required to address them. According to the regional board, we did that to their satisfaction after their second notice. 

“Nevertheless, the regional board may inspect our performance on the SWPPP at their discretion at any point in the future. As such, the City and the project management team continue to work with the design-build contractor to maintain compliance through changing construction site conditions.”

At this time, the WRF treatment plant jobsite is in compliance but the City had another issue with the water board concerning the existing treatment plant on Atascadero Road.

“The regional board did, however, issue the City a fine about nine months ago,” Kwolek revealed, “due to a discharge of chlorinated water at the existing wastewater treatment plant [i.e., unrelated to the WRF] that happened when the sodium bisulfate system malfunctioned. This issue was subsequently addressed.”

Such minor violations are not uncommon for treatment plants, which must adhere to specific limitations on everything to do with treatment and discharge of wastewater.

EBN asked the water board to rank the WRF project’s adherence to its permit but it declined to do so. “A singular ranking is inappropriate,” Hammer said, “because of the consistently changing conditions at the site and the fact that our observations are limited to particular timeframes.”

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