For more than 20 years, distance swimmer Howard Bennett has marched out at dawn to train in the ocean near Playa del Rey. A few weeks ago, he was stopped by a fisherman who met him on the shoreline.
“He was waving his arms and saying, ‘The water’s poisoned!’ ” recalled Bennett, a 55-year-old schoolteacher.
The fisherman’s warning was triggered by widely publicized state health department concerns over contaminated fish in the Santa Monica Bay.
Health department officials are still debating which pollution sources to blame. Bennett quickly concluded, however, that one source of the contamination is obvious--the giant Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in Playa del Rey, which pumps a flow of partly treated sewage into the ocean in a volume that makes it the state’s 10th largest “river.”
“The more I found out about this, the more it just boggled my mind,” Bennett said.
Bennett reacted by forming an environmental group to try to force the City of Los Angeles, which operates Hyperion, to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals and other pollutants present in the plant’s discharge.
His group has appeared in the 11th hour of a decade-long debate over how damaging Hyperion may be to marine life and how much money the city should spend to clean up the flow.
The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, meeting today in the state building in downtown Los Angeles, is to hear final arguments from environmentalists opposing the city’s request for a waiver that would exempt Hyperion from parts of the federal Clean Water Protection Act. That law requires waste-water sewage to receive secondary treatment before being discharged at sea.
No decision is expected until early summer, when the board is expected to heed the recommendation of its own staff and approve the city’s request for an exemption.
The city has battled to avoid full secondary treatment requirements since the federal law requiring them was enacted in 1972. First, city officials lobbied for a change in the law to allow cities to apply for waivers. They won that opportunity in 1977.
Their bid for a waiver was tentatively approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1981.
Now, they view the six-member Regional Water Quality Control Board as their last major hurdle, although either the city or environmentalists would be free to appeal the regional board’s decision to state water officials.
Here is what is at stake:
Whether the waiver is finally approved or not, the city would still have to meet state standards set by the 1983 California Ocean Plan.
Hyperion, which handles the sewage for 3.5 million Los Angeles area residents, gives secondary treatment to only 25% of that sewage.
Under the California Ocean Plan, city officials would have to increase that dramatically. At the end of five years, secondary treatment would have to be provided for 63% of the sewage.
In contrast, the federal standards--which the city wants to avoid--call for providing secondary treatment to 100% of the sewage.
The Hyperion plant handles 420 million gallons of sewage daily.
Los Angeles officials say they are already planning a $180-million construction project so that Hyperion can meet California Ocean Plan standards.
They say that providing full secondary treatment, as mandated by federal law, would cost an additional $155 million and would provide only marginal improvement in the quality of the discharge.
Harry Sizemore, the city’s assistant director of sanitation, said primary treatment of liquid sewage eliminates 60% to 70% of toxic wastes and heavy metals.
He said secondary treatment removes about 90% of toxic wastes and heavy metals and renders liquid sewage clean enough for non-agricultural irrigation.
Currently, three-fourth of all sewage processed by Hyperion receives only the primary treatment--a simple separating process in which sewage solids, or sludge, are removed.
Discharged 5 Miles Out
Primary and secondary waste waters are then mixed and discharged through an ocean-bottom pipe extending five miles out to sea.
(Sludge is discharged through another pipe but will soon be burned onshore and used to generate electricity in a facility that is being constructed at a cost of $200 million.)
The Regional Water Quality Control Board is faced with disagreement over the environmental effect of the Hyperion discharge and whether requiring the additional secondary treatment would make a difference substantial enough to warrant the cost.
Dr. Rimmon Fay, a marine biologist and former member of the state Coastal Commission, argued that the additional secondary treatment is necessary to minimize the effect of sludge and waste-water discharges, which have significantly reduced the number of species inhabiting the bay.
Heavy metals and toxic pollutants dumped into sewers during the last 40 years have left the bay without many kinds of organisms that inhabit unpolluted waters, such as those around the Channel Islands, Fay said.
He conceded that overfishing may have removed some species from the bay but argued that many organisms--including bottom-dwelling sponges and snails--are disappearing even without heavy commercial demand.
“What you don’t see anymore are large quantities of baby fish,” Fay said. “You don’t see the beds of shellfish, the lobsters, the abalone that were present here before. . . . I’ve seen declines in marine life across the board; you can only explain that by changes in the environment.”
Fay’s views are challenged by Willard Bascom, director of the Coastal Water Research Project, an organization partly funded by the City of Los Angeles that has monitored extensive parts of the bay for 15 years.
Bascom acknowledged that underwater conditions have been changed near the end of Hyperion’s discharge lines and said there is “no question” that extensive areas around the lines are contaminated by concentrated amounts of fecal material and increased levels of heavy metals, including chromium, cadmium and copper.
Bascom said, however, that his own studies have shown no damaging effects on marine animals. If some animals have left the bay, still greater numbers have replaced them, he said, including fish that are drawn to the food contained in fecal material and other organic waste.
“The thought of that is disgusting to humans--nobody wants to eat garbage and fecal material,” he said. “But a very large percentage of fish live off this.”
Bascom said his studies have shown that heavy metals bind with other particles in seawater that render them harmless to fish.
“I swear the metals don’t make any difference,” he said.
He added that many biologists believe that the greatest threat to the bay was ended when chemical companies stopped heavy dumping of DDT in 1972.
Other environmentalists attack Bascom’s findings by pointing out that his laboratory’s $1-million annual budget is supported by many of the localities that seek to continue waste-water discharges, including the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Orange County and the City of San Diego. Bascom denies that his reports reflect any bias.
Split on Threat to Humans
Environmentalists are also split about whether the discharges pose threats to human health because of unknown amounts of bacteria and viruses that are released.
Fay said there is strong scientific evidence that shellfish may act as a reservoir for sewage bacteria, making possible the spread of cholera, typhoid and other illnesses.
Victor Cabelli, a federal EPA consultant and microbiologist at the University of Rhode Island, said, however, that his own studies of waste-water sewage and human health have shown that there may be relatively little risk from deep-water discharges five miles offshore.
He said the only illness directly linked with swimming in sewage-polluted water is acute gastroenteritis, a stomach disorder characterized by vomiting, fever and diarrhea.
The risk of illness near Hyperion would seem to be far less than at many East Coast treatment plants, where relatively shallow discharge lines extend only a mile or two offshore, Cabelli said.
The deep bottom and offshore canyons of the Pacific were reasons why West Coast cities were able to lobby for the waiver program in 1977, he noted.
But even with their de facto exemption from the federal secondary treatment standards, city officials have had repeated difficulty meeting a series of interim pollution limits imposed on them by state and federal authorities.
In 1984, for example, a compliance report by the Regional Water Quality Board said the plant’s waste-water discharge exceeded daily discharge standards for arsenic on 10 occasions, cadmium on 12, mercury on 12, ammonia on 12 and cyanide twice. In addition, it said, the plant had difficulty meeting limits for oil and grease and for biological oxygen demand, a measure of the taxing effects of waste on the ocean.
City officials attributed these problems to higher-than-normal volumes of sewage and to the need for repair work that temporarily reduced the plant’s capacity to provide secondary treatment.
‘Generally’ in Compliance
“Generally we’re in compliance,” said Sizemore, the city’s assistant director of sanitation.
Current discharges of DDT are .4 parts per trillion--less than half the state limit, Sizemore said. For PCBs, the discharge is 1 part per trillion--a third the state standard. Organic pollutants entering the sewer system have been reduced from 15 pounds a day to about one pound a day since 1975, he said.
But environmentalists argue that there may be other kinds of pollution not monitored in discharge studies, many of which may be hazardous to human or marine health.
“Water can only assimilate a certain amount of toxins,” said Mark Abramowitz of Citizens for a Better Environment, a nonprofit group dedicated to enforcing environmental laws. “When that load . . . is exceeded, you have problems. It may not be immediate. Maybe a small organism is wiped out. Maybe that doesn’t seem so important . . . but when you consider the food chain in the bay, everything is interrelated.”
The difficulty, Abramowitz said, is that it is nearly impossible to know where the chemicals originate or which ones are causing damage. He called the discharge of many thousands of chemicals into sewers and waterways a “toxic time bomb . . . just ready to explode.”
That argument has proven persuasive to one of the eight city governments that pays Los Angeles for the use of Hyperion.
Council Opposes Waiver
The Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously last month to oppose the waiver Los Angeles is seeking and to support full secondary treatment--even if Santa Monica has to chip in $2 million or more for its share of new construction that would be necessary.
“We’ve seen what a negligent attitude . . . has done,” Councilman David G. Epstein said. “We’re stuck with a volume of toxics in the ocean that will be there for centuries. We believe we should err on the side of caution.”
Sizemore, however, argued that Hyperion was not even cited as a cause of pollution when state health officials began issuing warnings about eating contaminated fish from the Santa Monica and San Pedro bays last month.
The warnings were made when health officials found high levels of contamination in fish in three areas--in Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors and near Los Angeles County’s sewage treatment plant at White’s Point on the southern edge of the Santa Monica Bay.
Pat Eklund, a regional administrator for the EPA’s West Coast regional office, said federal officials see “a lot of potential problems” because of toxic chemicals, bacteria and viruses contained in the sewage discharges at Hyperion. She said, however, that EPA officials have supported the waiver from full secondary treatment at least until scientists complete additional long-term studies.
“The bottom line is, they have to meet state water-quality standards,” she said. “And those are pretty stringent in terms of toxics” and organic pollutants.
At odds--Marine biologist Dr. Rimmon Fay, left, argues that pollution has reduced species in Santa Monica Bay. But Willard Bascom, below, director of Coastal Water Research Project, challenges those views.