An aging and decrepit pipe that carries solid waste through parkland from the coastal treatment plant to the regional treatment plant will be replaced, despite environmental concerns.

The City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday for the project, which was recommended by the South Orange County Wastewater Authority as the most feasible in terms of funding, longevity and urgency to avoid a catastrophic spill from the deteriorating pipe along Aliso Creek.

"Replacing the pipe is the right project," said Betty Burnett, assistant general manager and district counsel for the South Coast Water District, which is one of the four agencies including the city of Laguna that are participating in the project.

"It is environmentally responsible sewage handling," she added.

The $4.2 million project will be funded by the city and the South Coast, Moulton Niguel and Emerald Bay Service districts. Laguna's share is about $1.4 million.

All of Laguna's water flows to the coastal treatment plant in Aliso Canyon that's run by SOCWA and the separated solid waste — commonly called sludge — is piped uphill from the coast to the regional plant near the intersection La Paz and Crown Valley Parkway in Laguna Niguel.

Opponents of the project urged the council to pass on the project in favor of waiting until a permanent solution could be devised.

The group had met with scientists and engineers at UC Irvine and with wastewater authority representatives to bolster their position that parkland is no place for sludge conveyance.

"What we need is a plan that looks to eliminate from the canyon both the utility pipes and the coastal treatment plant or upgrading it," said Ginger Osborne, who said she spoke on behalf of a number of community members.

"We suggest that the City Council ask SOCWA to develop a master plan and we would like to offer our energy and enthusiasm to this effort," she added.

Osborne said future regulations will require changes in how sewage is processed and technology is being developed that will process sewage in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way.

However, former district General Manager Mike Dunbar said immediate action was required.

"This is a solution that needs to happen," Dunbar said. "A long-term solution to upgrade the treatment plant is not going to happen immediately."

Waiting to upgrade the plant would have involved trucking the sludge, crossing a bridge to gain access to Alicia Parkway that SOCWA has been advised is problematic.

"I am worried about this bridge because we have been warned about it," Iseman said.

Ignoring warnings can lead to lawsuits she said.

The vote had been delayed from the Feb. 12 meeting due to the absence of Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson, whose vote was needed to break the deadlocked council.

Mayor Kelly Boyd and Councilwoman Toni Iseman, the city's representative on the South Orange County Wastewater Authority, favored the recommendation. Councilmen Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow sided with environmentalists who opposed it.

City staff reported that the project's environmental impact report did not identify any of the alternatives superior.

Pearson reviewed the Feb. 12 hearing before Tuesday's meeting.

"The first thing that came to my mind was pollution, and lawsuits and fines," Pearson said. "This is the most efficient solution for the near future."

Whalen said the two-weeks delay had provided an opportunity for more conversation and energized efforts to restart long-range planning. During the hiatus, Whalen had consulted with SOCWA General Manager Tom Rosales, leading him to change his position.

Whalen said he posed 10 questions to Rosales, including whether SOCWA would be willing to meet with Laguna Beach representatives and whether the proposed pipe would be redundant if technology came up with another solution in the future.

Rosales said the pipes might be usable in other processes.

"Recycled water needs pipes," Iseman said.

As for a task force, Rosales said it should not be limited to a study of the treatment plant.

"But a coming together of a lot of the stakeholders would be worthwhile and SOCWA would be involved," Rosales said.

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