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The Reclamator will rise again 

Despite the recent vote in Los Osos, the battle for sewage sovereignty still rages in the heart of one man

Tom Murphy is a man of small stature and huge ideas.

A bachelor who got his start in the sewer business 40 years ago by pumping cesspools in Alaska, he lives and works in a 40-foot motor coach that's painted gold--the same color as his watch and necklace.

Murphy is the man behind the Reclamator home waste treatment technology that he and his business partner, Mark Low, insist could still be the answer to Los Osos' sewage woes--in spite of the recent vote approving public money to build a sewer there.

click to enlarge THE RECLAMATOR :  Tom Murphy is the creator of the Reclamator technology, and co-founder of AES Discharge Elimination Services--the Los Osos-based company and self-proclaimed "solution to the sewer." - PHOTO BY STEVE E MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E MILLER
  • THE RECLAMATOR : Tom Murphy is the creator of the Reclamator technology, and co-founder of AES Discharge Elimination Services--the Los Osos-based company and self-proclaimed "solution to the sewer."
# By most accounts, he's lost this fight, and yet he fights on. Who is this guy?

Murphy's eccentricities include his preferred mode of living and travel a steadfast determination to beat The Law by following the law a youthful excitability marked by a rapid-fire recall for federal, state, and local laws that concern his technology and a penchant for amusing, albeit blunt, metaphors.

He uses his hands to talk, and demands full attention in conversation. He may be a character, but it's hard to recognize him for the charlatan some critics have made him out to be. By any account, Murphy believes in the technology he's created. From there, his motives are anyone's guess. In Murphy's own symbolic narratives, he is the underdog or the little pig standing against the wolf. In his telling, where his technology has failed to win favor among municipalities, it's likely the result of "the 'C' word": conspiracy. Sewers make a lot of money for the people who design and build them, he insists, even if they don't offer the best solution for the people. And even if the conspiracy seems to run across the county--or across the country--Murphy is not giving up.

"The water board," he began, "they're like the big bad wolf. They come to me huffin' and puffin', sayin' 'Mr. Murphy, we're gonna blow your Reclamator house down.' But the problem is--it's brick!"

In the lead-up to the recent successful sewer-funding vote, Murphy didn't make many friends in government with his advertisements and outrageous declarations, such as "the Reclamator is above the law"--the meaning of which, he now insists, was misconstrued. What he says he meant was that the Reclamator--which is essentially a home sewage treatment plant--exceeds EPA standards for acceptable nitrates and pollutant discharges. Essentially, Murphy said, his system doesn't need to be supervised, or subjected to laws that are less stringent than its own standards, because both are aimed at accomplishing the same thing.

Murphy's decision to push the technology without an endorsement by any governing bodies--such as the Los Osos Community Services District (CSD) or the Regional Water Quality Board--is essentially a claim that his company is a private, for-profit sewer utility for people, or at least it could be for an initial unspecified, but avowedly "modest" installation fee and a monthly service charge of $49.

Actually, this isn't the first pitch Murphy has made to Los Osos. In the early '90s, he approached the CSD and received some skepticism mixed with some success. Murphy claims to have installed a handful of his systems in Los Osos, but clearly, the technology was never widely adopted or seriously considered as a solution to the community's problems, which is why he now chooses to ignore the CSD and the water board. Even with the decades-long Los Osos sewer saga threatening to come to a close, Murphy remains combatively optimistic that his Reclamator can clean up Los Osos.

His current plans all start with the Proposition 218 voting records, which, unlike traditional ballots, are available to anyone under public records laws. Murphy plans to pick up the records and contact everyone who voted against the assessment or didn't vote at all, and offer them the Reclamator instead of hooking up to the sewer. That's Phase 1.

Harvey Packard, the water board's enforcement coordinator and someone who took an active pubic role in opposing the Reclamator before the vote, said that the water board doesn't specify how people should comply to regulations within the prohibition zone. It simply cares that no discharge is released from septic tanks. Packard said that he has never seriously looked at Murphy's technology, and can't validate or disprove claims that the machine will virtually eliminate waste.

"But it doesn't matter," Packard said. "If a resident wanted to hook up to the Reclamator right now, they would still be in violation, and as soon as the sewer is built, they would be ordered to hook up."

That is just the type of challenge that Murphy seems to relish. Phase 2 of his plan involves settling down by finding a little house in the prohibition zone that can accommodate a 40-foot coach and a Reclamator. Then, he'll install a water feature in the front lawn--"something grandiose," he promises, that spills reclaimed water all over the place. Then he'll just sit back and wait for the enforcers to come.

"Mr. Harvey Packard," Murphy said, "You don't know who you're messing with. I want to see you at high noon."

Murphy's challenge is part desperation and part faith that the legal system will not fail him in the same way that community planning departments have. The Reclamator is his life as well as his livelihood, and he can't seem to stomach the notion of being wrong or defeated.

"The typical assumption is that this would be a bad thing," Murphy said, acknowledging the Los Osos community's plans to solve its discharge problems with a public sewer, "but I want them to arrest me, fine me, take it to a federal court of law, and have a federal judge tell the water board that 'this man has a right to connect to a Reclamator.'"

Staff Writer Kylie Mendonca can be reached at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com.

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