Environment Report: We’re About to Drink Recycled Water But Don’t Know What’s in it

Science/Environment

Environment Report: We’re About to Drink Recycled Water But Don’t Know What’s in it

A new audit finds shortcomings in the Industrial Wastewater Control Program, high energy users won’t have to pay an extra fee and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

Inside of the North City Pure Water Facility / Photo by Megan Wood

I’ve been writing a lot about the broken sewage system in Tijuana causing spills into San Diego. Part of the concern, San Diego officials told me, is that Mexico lacks a system to monitor whether businesses are dumping toxic waste into the sewer system.

That’s part of the reason why it’s risky to reuse any of that river water because, if we don’t know what’s in the water, we can’t be sure how to best treat it.

San Diego is about to run into this issue in a big way with its Pure Water project, a multibillion-dollar system that’s going to recycle the city’s sewage and treat it so, well, you can drink it. The technology to clean it is sound, but the watchdogs working on the back end to investigate what industries might be spilling bad things into our sewer system aren’t yet best equipped to do their job.

That’s what San Diego City Auditor Andy Hanau found in an audit of the Industrial Wastewater Control Program published Thursday. (I’m featuring two Hanau hits in back-to-back newsletters, but this one was too interesting to pass up.)

The program is supposed to keep tabs on new and current businesses that might produce waste under local, state and federal environmental laws. That includes some of San Diego’s biggest industries, like biotechnology, biomedical research and development, hospitals and aerospace.

Because San Diego owns the region’s water treatment plants, the program’s staff keep track of industrial businesses in a huge swath of the county that includes 15 other cities.

But the Industrial Wastewater Control Program is understaffed. And those who are doing this work don’t have the best tools to try and pinpoint where a new industrial business might open up. Hanau said the city’s monitoring system isn’t efficient. Staff rely on their own knowledge of a geographic area they’re supposed to pay attention to. Or they rely on tips, or the business itself actually applying for a permit or by checking the phone book.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a phone book in a couple years.

The auditor’s office looked into it and thinks the Industrial Wastewater Control Program is missing hundreds of businesses we didn’t know about that might leak toxic waste into the sewer — and subsequently into our future drinking water.

What’s more, the auditor found program staff aren’t checking in on the more than 600 businesses across the region. Instead, they’re leaving the task of regulating those businesses to whichever city hosts them. Hanau said, on average, businesses that fall into that category haven’t been inspected in six years. Some were allowed to operate for years with an expired permit.

But again, the program is already understaffed, even without the extra work of better locating new businesses, getting them permitted and then taking care of all the permits they’ve left on the back burner.

It seems the program needs some serious help, which, per usual, mostly comes down to money.

San Diego Public Utilities Director Shauna Lorance sent a letter to Hanau’s office agreeing with its findings and detailing how they’d go about fixing some of the holes in their program before the first phase of Pure Water goes online around 2025.

Lorance said the department hired six new staff beginning in 2019, but “staff turnover and the pandemic have prevented the program from being fully staffed since the creation of these new positions.”

Lorance said the department paid for an outside consultant to audit the program in 2017 and as a result, hired those new staff members and cut the inspection backlog by half over the last year.

In the meantime, staff are updating their procedures to fix some of these loopholes, the letter said. Hopefully by the time San Diego is ready to flip Pure Water’s “on switch” everything will be in order.

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