The City Council delayed a vote Tuesday on plans to separate the solids from waste water at the coastal treatment plant.

Council members were split 2-2 on the recommendation by city staff to replace the existing line that pumps the solids — called sludge — to a regional treatment plant.

Mayor Kelly Boyd and Councilwoman Toni Iseman, the city's representative on the South Orange County Wastewater Authority, which oversees the coastal plant, favored the recommendation. Councilmen Bob Whalen and Steven Dicterow sided with environmentalists who opposed it. But all agreed to hold off a vote until Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson, who was ailing, was back on the dais.

"I feel a sense of urgency," Iseman said. "A small leak is one thing, a rupture of the pipe is another."

Two plans were presented to the council: replacement of the existing pipe, which is deteriorating, with a new 6-inch sludge-force main along the east side of Aliso Creek through parkland at a cost of about $4.2 million, or trucking the sludge through Aliso and Woods Canyon Park with an initial cost of $600,000 and on-going costs of about $300,000 a year.

A third option that involves trucking and could include conversion of the sludge to energy is supported by local environmentalists. The estimated cost of this option, which would run until an on-site solution is perfected, is $17 million.

The project's environmental report did not identify any project as superior to the proposal supported by city staff, but is opposed by Village Laguna, the South Laguna Civic Assn. and the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition. Laguna Greenbelt has also submitted comments and recommendations.

"There are alternatives that, although they initially may cost more than the pipeline, would save money that is now being spent on electricity and eventually even generate revenue," said Ginger Osborne, president of Village Laguna.

Laguna is one of four agencies to participate in the project, each one to get a vote on the solution proposed by the SOCWA staff and engineering committee. The city of Laguna Beach, Moulton Niguel Water District, South Coast Water District and Emerald Bay Service District will each fund one-quarter of the cost of whatever project is selected.

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