No one thinks much about the sewer system in any city; if all your waste disappears folks are happy. But some people think a lot about these systems and one group is the Environmental Protection Agency.

All publicly owned treatment works (POTW) in the United States operate under conditions specified in a treatment permit issued by the EPA through Regional Water Control Boards (RWCB) consistent with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) requirements. 
These permits list specific conditions that the operator, in this case the city of Lompoc, must comply with.
On April 20 the Lompoc City Council conducted a hearing to discuss responses to an administrative order issued by the EPA concerning deficiencies found during an audit of wastewater plant operations.

Back in 2019 a former utility commissioner and some rogue council members took it upon themselves to interfere with the operation of the wastewater pretreatment system. Pretreatment, an RWCB mandate, means wastes such as grease and salt must be managed at the point of origin prior to discharging liquid into the sewer.

In one case the operator of a dialysis treatment center appealed a staff decision concerning the classification of their business and that they be required to stop using an industrial sized water softener as a part of their treatments.

After several tries to obtain compliance with pretreatment requirements the city issued a notice of violation to the center operator; that’s when the former utility commissioner took it upon himself to support an appeal of the notice of violation.

In public hearings, he attempted to convince council members and the public that he was some sort of wastewater treatment expert.

A second issue was that during a routine audit of the wastewater plant permit the EPA noted that the city “violated its monthly average oil and grease limits in June 2018 and March 2017.”

The city requires food preparation businesses to install grease traps as part of the pretreatment program; the report noted that “the City Council has not been supportive of the Municipal Code requiring grease traps.”

The EPA also specifically identified Councilman Dirk Starbuck as criticizing the staff for “not being council friendly” during the inspection. The same councilman noted that the EPA report cited grease limit violations only for June 2018 and March 2017, contending that was long before fast-food restaurants were required to install grease traps.
The fact is that in 1981 the EPA’s National Pretreatment Program’s “Controlling Fats, Oils, and Grease Discharges from Food Service Establishments” codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, required “each POTW must establish specific local limits for industrial users to guard against interference with the operation of the municipal treatment works.”

In other words, the city’s requirement for grease traps at the source and enforcement against violators, which includes a sandwich shop on a council member’s family properties, evolved from federal laws that had been in place for at least 38 years.

I have been the industry representative during numerous audits/inspections by outside regulatory agencies during my working life, and the purpose of these inspections and the accompanying checklists is not to establish how friendly you are with the local management team.

Instead, it focuses on how to measure compliance with regulatory requirements and how supportive the management team, in this case the City Council, is of the professional staff efforts to comply with permit conditions.

Specifically, the City Council majority at the time, led by former Councilman Jim Mosby, granted an exception to the grease trap requirement to a sandwich shop located on Councilman Dirk Starbuck’s family property.

Elected council members have no technical knowledge about wastewater treatment and the city attorney advised them that “your decisions (to support the appellant) could cause a cumulative violation of the city’s NPDES permit.”

Of course, as was their normal practice the council majority simply ignored the professional staff and the attorneys warning.

The EPA didn’t look favorably on the council’s decision to waive pretreatment standards and sent a strongly worded administrative order, a step that could lead to a fine of up to $6,000 per day of violation, directing the city of Lompoc to implement a series of corrective actions to address current violations and prevent future violations.

I don’t know if it was a city staffer or a consultant who sent the city response or input from some elected officials, but the EPA responded by “disapproving specific proposed changes to the city’s pretreatment sewer use ordinance and pretreatment program.”

So, the matter isn’t settled yet, but I feel confident it will be eventually.

The moral to this story is that someone does care about the sewer system, and that agency has a significant number of tools up to and including administrative fines and/or revocation of the NPDES permit to operate the wastewater plant in severe situations.

In other words, unqualified politicians should never waive technical requirements.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry. He has been following Lompoc politics since 1992, and after serving 23 years appointed to various Lompoc commissions retired from public service. The opinions expressed are his own.