State water quality officials have agreed to fine the California Men's Colony $600,000 after the prison's aging sewer system disgorged an estimated 334,600 gallons of raw sewage between February 2004 and May 2005.
However, because about 70 percent of the sewage flowed into Chorro Creek, and subsequently Morro Bay , officials at the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) don't want prison officials to simply write the state a check.
Instead, at a June 8 meeting of the RWQCB, officials asked the prison to use the money to fund a number of projects dedicated to improving water quality in Morro Bay â€” something CMC officials have already offered to do.
At the meeting, prison officials proposed $300,000 worth of what are called "supplemental environmental projects" â€” projects and money that go above and beyond what the CMC is doing to fix the sewage leak problems.
Matt Thompson, water resource control engineer with the RWQCB, said his agency liked the prison's ideas.
First there would be $80,000 to help ranchers put up fencing along Chorro and other creeks to keep cattle out. Next is $70,000 to help remove several dozen abandoned boats near the Natural History Museum in Morro Bay that water officials say are leaking pollutants.
Finally, the CMC would pay $150,000 to maintain and operate a sewage pumping boat in Morro Bay . The people who live on boats in the bay, Thompson said, often release their sewage directly into the water. The pump boat would act like a septic tank pump truck by removing the waste and hauling it to shore.
"We felt [the projects] were very thought out and we appreciated the Men's Colony's approach," Thompson said. "In the past they might not have proposed these projects; they could have just considered paying the penalty amount.
"It's really nice to see them attempt to be a good neighbor."
But the CMC's proposals only add up to half what the state wants it to pay. Thompson said that at the RWQCB's next meeting on Sept. 9, it would decide what other projects it wants the prison to fund.
Or there could be a settlement: According to Thompson, state officials have given him and his staff members that option.
"The whole intent is to keep the liability local and to attempt to repair some of the damage. That's really the intent behind supplemental environmental projects," he said. "We're doing our best to keep this money in the watershed."
Shelly Thompson, the prison's spokeswoman, said that prison officials have not yet decided whether they'd rather simply pay the rest of the money as a fine or find another $300,000 worth of projects to fund. The goal, she said, is to find a way to positively impact an area that's been damaged.
"We're waiting for headquarters to determine the fairest and most equitable way to disburse the funds," she said.
In the meantime, the CMC continues to work to change its current sewer system. In May, workers finished building a pipeline between the prison and its sewer plant; the line is now operating at full capacity.
Work also continues on a new $25 million sewage treatment plant. CMC officials estimate it will be finished sometimes in 2006.
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at email@example.com.