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UCD is sued for allegedly polluting creek

By Sumita Mukherji/Enterprise staff writer

DeltaKeeper, a project of the environmental watchdog group WaterKeepers Northern California, filed suit Thursday against UC Davis, Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.

The suit alleges that UCD has ``systematically ignored'' key requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and the California General Industrial Stormwater Permit by illegally discharging pollutants into Putah Creek.

According to a written release, the discharges originate from the new campus wastewater treatment facility and other campus facilities, including the university airport, campus landfill, arboretum waterway and various animal facilities.

Putah Creek drains into the Sacramento River and Delta.

DeltaKeeper spokesman Bill Jennings said talks with the university to prevent a lawsuit had been ``unproductive.''

``We have been disappointed that we have been unable to reach some resolution of these issues,'' he said. ``We have reluctantly turned to litigation so that the university may comply with the law.''

Jennings added that the DeltaKeepers want UCD to meet aquatic requirements. Recently, Jennings said, chlorine discharge has been found around the new wastewater treatment facility.

``They're not even supposed to be using chlorine; they're supposed to be using a UV (ultraviolet) system,'' he said.

According to UCD facilities engineer David Phillips, however, the chlorine findings were a ``start-up glitch.''

``The new plant uses UV light for disinfection; the old plant used chlorine gas,'' he said. ``(In the beginning) we used liquid bleach for cleaning purposes. The final step was to clean filters (using the bleach). There was a failure with a valve, and instead of the water coming back to the plant, some got out.

``It was an unfortunate occurrence,'' he continued. ``We immediately (reacted), and we discontinued using bleach for that purpose,'' Phillips said, adding that there was no secrecy about using the chlorine bleach, and that the use of this product was available for review.

Overall, however, the start-up process for the facility was ``amazingly smooth,'' Phillips said.

``Using UV light for disinfection has been superior,'' he said. ``It really is high-quality water. It meets the state standards for reclamation; we could water the grass with it.

``Anyone looking at UCD objectively can see we're doing our part to make sure we protect Putah Creek.''

During the last few years the health of Putah Creek has been improved by increased releases of water from Lake Berryessa, and salmon have returned to the creek.

But for Jennings, the return of the salmon indicates a need to rid Putah Creek of as many contaminants as possible.

``Our concern is the discharge and that the waste and storm water need to meet aquatic requirements,'' he said. ``The university cannot continue to regard Putah Creek as its sewer. It's not above the law, and other businesses have to abide by these regulations. It's not an unreasonable burden.''

Jennings said that while Putah Creek may meet drinking water quality standards, the standards for aquatic life are often more stringent.

``The amount of copper in drinking water cannot exceed 1,300 parts per billion,'' he said. ``The acute one-hour average for aquatic life is 3.6 to 50 parts per billion, and that's fractional of the other amount.

``You can't put contaminants in water that kill aquatic life, and those levels (previously mentioned) assume there are no other stressors in the water.''

The suit also alleges that UCD violated limitations in its wastewater permit for aluminum, oil, grease, tributyltin and coliform, among other contaminants.

Valerie Connor, a senior environmental specialist who helped research toxicity levels in Putah Creek from November 1998 to October 1999, said results of the study indicated there was no toxicity in the creek.

Conner was appointed to the Putah Creek Technical Advisory Committee by the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.

``We collect monthly samples of the water and try to grow fish, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and we specifically bracketed the discharge from the wastewater treatment plant,'' she said.

``Although we did not monitor copper levels specifically, copper toxicity (copper which has been dissolved) is something we would have picked up. The beauty of it is that we don't measure the overall levels, we measure whether it is bioavailable by doing these toxicity studies.''

Connor added that there was not adequate time to study the storm runoff from the former Laboratory for Energy and Health Research (LEHR) facility, and that she and the rest of the task force recommended further study of the facility.

The DeltaKeepers also allege that UCD routinely violated other regulations by failing to obtain various permits, contain storm water at numerous locations, develop storm water management plans or conduct required monitoring and reporting.

Jennings re-emphasized his disappointment with the university, and said UCD has consistently maintained ``a culture of noncompliance.''

Phillips said he is hopeful about the outcome of the lawsuit against UCD.

``We dispute a lot of the facts in the lawsuit,'' he said. ``We're not violating permits. Putah Creek is a very important part of our campus, and nobody has a stronger interest to protect the creek than the university.

``We're confident that we'll prevail.''

-- Doris (, July 05, 2000

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