Sewage leak still snarls Coast Highway in Laguna Beach

More than a day after a sewage leak flooded South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, forcing beach closures and blocking access to city's main road, officials labored Friday to repair the breach.

"It's an absolute mess," said City Manager Ken Frank. "Everybody should stay away from Coast Highway."

The northbound lanes remained closed between Diamond and Center streets, police said, and the southbound lanes were expected to be shut down again early this morning for more repairs.

Police rerouted cars Friday onto narrow side streets above Bluebird Park, city officials said, and at times as much as a mile of Coast Highway was blocked in both directions.

Frank said he did not know when the roads would reopen completely.

A clamp on a sewer main's air release valve failed about 3:30 p.m. Thursday, spewing liquid across the highway between Center and Diamond streets.

About 6,500 gallons of sewage flowed into the ocean at Agate Street, Frank said in a news release. The rupture in the 24-inch pipe was contained about two hours later, with crews working overnight to make additional repairs.

But 10,000 additional gallons polluted the water Friday afternoon when a pump station was shut down during repairs and sewage backed up and overflowed into storm drains.

Laguna Beach has spent millions to upgrade its aging sewer lines in recent years after sustaining enough spills that water quality regulators fined the city for the contamination.

Orange County health officials closed 1.25 miles of coastline in South Laguna Beach because of potential bacterial contamination, including E. coli and Salmonella, from the sewage discharge.

Beaches and coves will be closed from Thalia Street to Rockledge Road for at least two days while officials test water quality, said Larry Honeybourne, program manager with the environmental health division of the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Although the area remains dangerous for swimmers and surfers, "the risk is in the water, not on the beach" itself, Honeybourne said.

The traffic snarl caused headaches for drivers trying to get in and out of the city, hemmed in by canyons on one side and the ocean on the other.

Juan Arellano of Costa Mesa sat idling in traffic Friday afternoon trying to make it to a doctor's appointment in Tustin.

"I've been here 20 minutes in line; I hope I can get out," Arellano said, stopped in a line of about 45 cars.

Employees of the Tail Wagger pet grooming shop on Coast Highway carried pets out to their owners, who were stranded in traffic.

Dozens of vacuum trucks crowded the area where the sewage leak occurred. Because of the high pressure, repair workers struggled to fit a new metal collar on the sewer main.

After several failed attempts, city officials temporarily shut down the Bluebird Pump Station to relieve the pressure and facilitate the clamp's repair. That caused Friday's 10,000-gallon spill into the ocean at Bluebird Beach, Frank said.

A faulty rubber gasket on the new clamp forced city officials to shut down the pump station a second time, Frank said, with more sewage spills possible.

Frank estimated that cleanup expenses could exceed $100,000.

According to Frank, the city has spent about $15 million on sewer system upgrades in recent years and installed a $1.5-million pipeline near Nyes Place and Victoria Beach last month. That work is not connected to this week's spill.

Sewage spills shut down part of the city's beachfront in November 2006 and in June 2005 during the Bluebird Canyon landslide.


Times news assistant Lauren Biron contributed to this report.