The City Council has taken the first steps toward determining if it should oppose a county sanitation group's efforts to circumvent federal standards for treating sewage pumped into San Pedro Bay.
The council voted unanimously Tuesday to direct City Manager John Dever to compile a report on the sanitation group's proposal to skip advanced or "secondary" treatment of sewage before it is discharged into the sea.
Operators of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, a coalition of 25 sanitation agencies, have applied for a waiver of the federal Clean Water Protection Act, which requires that all sewage receive secondary treatment. No hearing date has been set.
All raw sewage flowing into the group's Carson treatment plant is given primary treatment, in which solids are allowed to settle out before the effluent is piped to a discharge area two miles off White Point. About 15% of the sewage is given secondary treatment, which involves a biological process that further cleanses the effluent before it is dumped.
Councilman Warren Harwood, an opponent of the sanitation group's efforts to skirt the federal standards, said he considered the council decision a victory, even though it fell short of his call for a full-blown study by the city Health Department.
"What has been accomplished is the issue has been placed before the community," Harwood said. "For leaders of the community to try now to whitewash this problem would be politically foolhardy."
The decision came after several key opponents of sewage dumping called on the council to take a stand against the waiver.
"You would be derelict in your duties if you do not reject the county's efforts to get a waiver," said Ellen Stern Harris, a former member of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Dr. Rimmon Fay, a Venice-based marine biologist, said the sewage dumping has caused "profound changes in the biology of the shoreline," calling it "the worst ocean disaster recorded in any ocean on any coastline in the world."
Secondary treatment is necessary because it keeps toxic chemicals from "getting into the waste stream" flowing into area waters, Fay said. The dumping of DDT and other chemicals into the ocean over the past three decades has reduced fishery production and caused some species of fish to vanish.
Several council members, however, said that it would take millions of dollars to upgrade the sanitation group's treatment facilities so that full secondary treatment could be provided.
"I think everyone who has studied all the aspects of this is in favor of secondary treatment," Councilman Edd Tuttle said. "Still, the real issue is one of economics."
Councilman Wallace Edgerton added that "if we go to a higher form of treatment, the taxpayers are going to be the ones who pay for it."
Other council members questioned if the matter is outside the city's jurisdiction, noting that the waiver will go before the Regional Water Quality Control Board for approval.
"I don't think we're the appropriate agency to jump into the fray," Councilwoman Jan Hall said.
Harwood argued, however, that the city has a great stake in the matter and needs to take a stand.
"We're the ones who have the most to gain or lose," Harwood told his colleagues. "Inland communities just do not have as much to lose."
A report by Dever will present both sides of the issue and help the council "focus on the fact that we do have a choice on supporting or not supporting the waiver," Harwood said.
"The thing I want to stop is an effort by any of the council members to sweep this issue under the rug," Harwood said. "I think we've accomplished that."
350 Million Gallons a Day
The county sanitation group, which handles effluent produced by more than 4 million people in cities from Lancaster to Long Beach, funnels about 350 million gallons of sewage into the ocean each day.
Sanitation officials say the capacity for secondary treatment at the Carson plan will be boosted to about 60% late this year, with 40% continuing to get primary treatment.
The group would like to avoid the cost of building new facilities to provide 100% secondary treatment. In addition, sanitation officials contend primary treatment is nearly as effective as secondary treatment.
By using synthetic chemicals, about 80% of the suspended solids can be removed through primary treatment, they say. Guidelines of the federal Clean Water Protection Act require that the group remove about 90% of the solids.
The City of Los Angeles is seeking a similar waiver for its Hyperion plant in Playa del Rey. The federal government, which has postponed enforcement of the guidelines several times, will permit the city and county sanitation districts to continue their present operations until the end of the hearing process.