Did 'Congressman Sewage' Save Billions? Fact Check
Statement: “My first bill in Congress saved San Diego taxpayers, you guys, over $3 billion,” Bob Filner, a mayoral candidate, said at a debate Aug. 14. Determination: Mostly True
Statement: “My first bill in Congress saved San Diego taxpayers, you guys, over $3 billion,” Bob Filner, a mayoral candidate, said at a debate Aug. 14.
Determination: Mostly True
Analysis: On the mayoral campaign trail, San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio tries to remind voters time and again that he’s the one with the record of saving taxpayers money.
At a debate in August, DeMaio’s opponent, Congressman Bob Filner, was having none of it:
My first bill in Congress saved San Diego taxpayers, you guys, over $3 billion. He takes credit, I don’t know, for $150 million. You’re a piker on this tax savings. I got a waiver for the sewage treatment plant at Point Loma that still exists today that saved us $3 billion.
We wanted to check Filner’s claim of saving $3 billion with his first bill, an enormous sum that would burnish his record in Washington, D.C.
Filner had his Ocean Pollution Reduction Act signed into law in January 1994 during his first term in Congress. The law addressed a San Diego-specific problem.
At least as far back as the 1980s, the city had a dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, its major sewage facility.
The plant didn’t — and still doesn’t — meet federal pollution standards. When Filner entered Congress in 1993, the EPA was threatening to force the city to upgrade its sewage treatment process before it pumped millions of gallons of wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.
The upgrade’s estimated price tag at the time? Three billion dollars.
San Diego had missed a federal deadline to apply for a waiver to EPA rules. So special legislation — Filner’s bill — was needed to give the city another opportunity. Filner and other federal lawmakers from San Diego and California pushed aggressively.
The EPA granted San Diego a waiver 18 months after the bill passed. Filner dubbed himself “Congressman Sewage” for his efforts.
But the situation isn’t as simple as Filner makes it sound.
Filner’s bill led to a temporary waiver of federal pollution rules, not a permanent one. And the city remains in negotiations with the EPA over how it handles sewage. San Diego is on its third waiver and is up for renewal again in 2015. That process is expected to require the city recycle more of its sewage than it does today.
Cost estimates for upgrading the Point Loma plant have dropped from $3 billion to $1.2 billion in part because of other improvements to San Diego’s wastewater system. The price tag could go even lower, to $710 million, if the city fully implements the sewage recycling strategy.
Our definition of a Mostly True statement is one that’s accurate, but has an important nuance. It fits here.
Filner’s bill was a milestone in San Diego’s decades-long sewage treatment saga. It helped spare the city an estimated $3 billion upgrade at the plant in the mid-1990s. But the bill didn’t resolve San Diego’s sewage problem nor did it absolve the city of expenses related to it. Both are significant issues to consider when evaluating his claim.
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Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects.
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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