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Hollister
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June 27, 2022

City under the water gun: Board may increase fine

City of Hollister officials were recently informed that the
expected $1.2 million fine for a sewage spill in May could reach
close to $1.8 million if compliance measures are not met.
City of Hollister officials were recently informed that the expected $1.2 million fine for a sewage spill in May could reach close to $1.8 million if compliance measures are not met.

Officials received the proposal for the impending American Civil Liabilities fine from the Regional Water Quality Control Board staff on Oct. 22.

At Friday’s meeting in San Luis Obispo, the nine-member water board – which established the citywide cease-and-desist order Sept. 19 – will finalize details on the originally specified $1.2 million fine.

“We didn’t feel that was the board’s action (Sept. 19),” City Manager George Lewis said. “It just becomes another thing we have to deal with.”

The penalties stem from a 15-million gallon wastewater treatment plant spill May 4, along with a history of wastewater mismanagement by the city, according to RWQCB members.

The language in the most recent ACL document surprised Lewis. He said its timing left the city little time to prepare for Friday’s meeting.

Lewis said city officials interpreted the board’s requests Sept. 19 differently than the information in the document.

According to the water board’s staff and city officials, the ACL proposal states the following provisions:

– The city must complete the first three phases of the long-term wastewater management plan on schedule or pay $200,000 for any completion date missed, which is equal to the construction cost of each phase.

– A second set of deadlines correlates with three supplemental environmental projects within San Benito County. Those projects will cost $576,000.

If the city misses any of those three deadlines it would forfeit an additional lump sum of $576,000 to the state.

That subtle interpretation by the RWQCB staff – the lump sum fine for missed supplemental project deadlines – surprised city officials.

Conceivably then, if the city was close to completing its supplemental environmental projects and missed a deadline, a lump sum of $576,000 would go to the state’s Cleanup and Abatement Fund – regardless of any clean record before that.

The supplemental environmental projects include a new backup pond, a new water flow conservation system and contributions to the San Benito County Water District.

The final $24,000 of the total $1.2 million covers administrative costs of the water board and state.

Even Matt Fabry from the RWQCB staff had trouble interpreting the water board’s proposed decision.

“It was not clear among us what the water board’s intent was,” Fabry said.

Fabry’s staff diagnosed the board’s direction to the best of its ability and chose the lump sum approach.

Public Works Superintendent Clint Quilter said – because of varying views expressed on the nine-member board – interpretations can be difficult to solidify.

“We don’t believe that was the intent of the board,” Quilter said. “We weren’t expecting it that way.”

The city prefers the incremental fine designation because – if for some reason it failed to meet deadlines – the potential fines would lower significantly.

Regardless, city officials plan to meet all deadlines.

“The reality is, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we don’t get fined at all,” Lewis said.

The only concern Lewis expressed was involvement of a third party toward meeting deadline goals.

Lewis said if an agency performing a geologic study did not follow a prompt enough timeline, the city’s schedule may be pushed back.

Councilmember Tony Bruscia also said third party involvement is a major concern with a lump sum fine. Some facets of construction are out of the city’s control, Bruscia said.

At Friday’s meeting, city officials will attempt to convince board members to accept the incremental fine provision.

“We’re going to do our best to resolve it,” Bruscia said.

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