By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
The Crescent City Harbor District will close its treatment plant in April at the start of whiting season unless the facility's sole user pays fines that the plant has incurred from state pollution violations.
The violations span the past six years and total $48,000 in fines, as the plant discharged more materials than allowed under federal Clean Water Act limits, according to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The treatment plant filters seafood materials out of wastewater from Alber Seafood processing plant. Closing it would stop business for the San Francisco company that has operated at the harbor since 2003.
"We would have to leave," said company president Donald Alber. "We're really not happy with the timing of the notice."
The Feb. 1 letter from the harbor threatening to close the plant prompted Alber Seafood to step into the state water violation issue. The California Regional Water Quality Control Board had planned to hear the case Thursday in Santa Rosa but rescheduled the hearing for its March agenda after receiving notices from Alber Seafoods attorneys on Wednesday arguing the statute of limitations on the violations and the accuracy in identifying them.
"This is stuff that the harbor district should have done but did not do," Alber said. "We should really be having a conversation about fees and costs and not about closures."
During the early 1990s, the city and the harbor built the current plant to treat processed seafood waste. Under a federal permit, the discharge went into the ocean rather than through the city wastewater treatment plant.
But a series of problems with the plant, along with its costly operation, prompted city officials to seek a raise in fish processors' rates. In an effort to block that increase, the harbor took over the plant in 1998.
Harbor officials have since regretted that step. The plant costs more than $45,000 each year to operate, with utilities, workers' pay, repairs, fines and mortgage payments. In a report last year, Harbormaster Richard Young considered closing the plant or asking for more money from Alber Seafoods to run it.
The harbor collects about $2,300 each month from Alber Seafoods during the approximately six months out of the year that the company uses it.
Alber points to the jobs and economic boost that the company provides the local area. The processing plant employs about 50 people during whiting season and about 100 during crab season.
The company also has invested in its seafood processing plant, gutting the interior, installing chillers to freeze crab and a steam boiler to cook 150,000 pounds of crab each day, Alber said.
"I wouldn't walk away from that lightly," he said.
The district could, with board approval, direct some of the fine money toward measures that prevent the pollution from continuing.
"Naturally, the district doesn't want to pay the cleanup and abatement amount of $48,000," said Tom Dunbar, senior water resources control engineer with the state board. "They're being just a little bit more creative in their interpretation."
Alber seeks public input on the issue and has set up a Website www.crescentcitywastewater.com to detail the treatment plant's history, collect comments and urge residents to contact local officials to save the facility.
"And find out if the community cares or not," Alber said of reactions that will help the company gauge whether or not to stay in Crescent City. "It's good to know that. We don't want to be any place where we're not wanted."