Carla Bard, the former chairwoman of the powerful state Water Resources Control Board, joined environmentalists and state legislators this week in attacking Los Angeles' practice of dumping barely treated sewage into the ocean, and in calling for the strictest possible treatment standards at the city's Hyperion Treatment Plant in Playa del Rey.
At a hearing Monday before the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, Bard accused the city of failing for 10 years to meet federal pollution limits for sewage dumped into Santa Monica Bay.
Bard drew cheers from environmentalists in the audience of 200 by urging board members to clean up the bay by refusing to grant Los Angeles an exemption from ocean-discharge requirements of the federal Clean Water Protection Act. The proposed exemption, set for a regional board vote on July 22, would enable the city to continue dumping sewage into the bay without providing 100% secondary treatment, which helps remove chemicals and bacteria. The board's staff has recommended approval of the exemption.
$155-Million Additional Expense
Currently, only about 25% of Hyperion's sewage receives secondary treatment, which renders it clean enough for irrigation, before being dumped into the ocean. The remaining sewage is only partially treated to remove solids. City officials argue that full secondary treatment, as required under federal law, would create only small improvements in water quality at an additional cost of $155 million during the next five years.
"In every public opinion poll taken, citizens of California . . . have declared their overwhelming support of measures to ensure cleaner water and a safer environment, even if it costs more money," Bard told the six-member water board. "You will be taking the wise path and the right path to deny . . . (the exemption) and proceed forthwith to clean up the pollution of Santa Monica Bay."
Bard and a coalition of environmentalists dominated the regional board's final hearing on the issue Monday, drawing a strong link between toxic chemicals and heavy metals contained in sewage and widely publicized public health warnings over contaminated fish caught in the bay. State health officials issued warnings last month against eating fish that may contain high levels of DDT, PCBs and other chemical toxins.
Joining opponents of the exemption were state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) and members of the Santa Monica City Council. They argued that the regional board should take every precaution to ensure that sewage waste-water is freed of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and potentially hazardous bacteria and viruses.
Old Dumping Blamed
City engineers conceded that secondary treatment does a better job in removing such contaminants. But city representatives denied that any connection between sewage discharges from Hyperion and possible environmental damage to the bay has been proved. They attributed much of the suspected pollution problem to chemical dumping during the 1960s and early 1970s, leaving high levels of DDT and other toxins in the ocean-floor sediments.
Harry Sizemore, the city's assistant director of sanitation, also defended the city's operation of the plant by saying Hyperion is "generally in compliance" with discharge limits set by its operating permit. Despite discharges that occasionally exceed those limits, he said, most of the plant's discharges are well below current state and federal standards.
Sizemore said the city is asking to be excused from providing full secondary treatment by agreeing to meet pollution limits set by the 1983 California Ocean Plan--the state's adopted standard for ocean discharges. The ocean plan would require Los Angeles to boost secondary treatment at Hyperion to 63% of the plant's total sewage within five years.
Construction to meet those standards already is expected to cost the city about $180 million, Los Angeles officials said. They estimated that additional construction to provide full secondary treatment would more than double sewer services charges, which now average about $5 per month per household.
"We would be looking at doubling the charge . . . for a negligible benefit," Councilwoman Joy Picus told regional board members.
Bard argued that scientific uncertainty over the effects of the sewage on marine life and public health should have prevented the federal Environmental Protection Agency from granting a tentative approval of the city's request in 1981. The EPA's tentative approval has placed the fate of the exemption in the hands of state water officials. The state board, which oversees the use of California's oceans and rivers, could pass final judgment on the regional board's decision, if it is appealed.
According to federal guidelines, Bard said, an exemption cannot be granted unless there is certainty of a healthy, normal population of marine organisms beyond the area where the sewage is first discharged into the water. Former EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford tentatively approved the city's application despite evidence that some fish in Santa Monica Bay suffered from lip and skin tumors, color abnormalities, malformations and high concentrations of heavy metals, Bard said.
'Cannot Be Granted'
"Unless the law has changed radically since my tenure . . . (an exemption) cannot and should not be granted," she told board members. In a later interview, Bard attributed the tentative approval to an administrative mistake that could be an "excellent basis for a lawsuit" if the city wins a final exemption.
Pat Eklund, an administrator of the EPA's West Coast region, said the agency's tentative approval was based on research by a task force that examined the environmental issues. She emphasized that a tentative decision is designed to allow public testimony on possible health and environmental effects before action is taken to make it permanent.
Los Angeles City Council President Pat Russell, whose district includes the Hyperion plant, is expected to introduce a motion today asking for a report on the extent of the plant's impact on marine waters. She said she expects the report to be ready in two months.