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Sewage spill brings a penalty--and an appeal 

Attorneys for the South SLO County Sanitation District are getting ready to file an appeal against a $1.1 million penalty for spilling 674,000 gallons of raw sewage two years ago.

Members of the Regional Water Quality Control Board decided on the penalty amount on Oct. 3, after a marathon 16-hour hearing last month. A few hours later, the sanitation district’s board of directors voted 2-1 in closed session to file an appeal, with Oceano representative Matthew Guerrero dissenting.

In their unanimous decision on the penalty amount, members of the local water board cited negligence and lack of maintenance as reasons for the spill. Raw sewage backed up into some homes in Oceano and flowed into nearby creeks and the ocean in December 2010.

“Our decision was not subjective. There’s a set of guidelines that legally we have to follow [to determine a penalty amount],” water board member Jean-Pierre Wolff told New Times after the decision.

He brandished a thick binder stuffed with pages of detailed formulas spelled out in the state’s Water Quality Enforcement Policy.

Sanitation district attorney Mike Seitz said district officials are “shocked” by the decision.

“We feel we have a strong case in front of a judge, rather than the water board. Their entire application of the enforcement policy is unfair,” Seitz said in a phone interview.

The district hired a Sacramento law firm to present its case to the water board. The same firm is working on the appeal, technically known as a petition, to the State Water Resources Control Board. If the state board declines to hear the case, it will go to SLO County Superior Court, Seitz said.

Asked whether the sanitation district has budgeted for the legal fight, Seitz responded: “Yes, but it’s the first time we’re going down this path. We’ve had a little difficulty explaining how we’re budgeting for it due to attorney-client privilege.”

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