Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) has asked county health and state water officials to investigate a sewer overflow system that periodically spews raw sewage into Ballona Creek, which empties into the ocean at Marina del Rey.
Hayden last week sent a letter to Robert Ghirelli, director of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, asking why the overflow has been allowed and what will be done to stop it.
‘It Is Inexcusable’
The board has done nothing, Hayden said, “when for years and years raw sewage has been dumped right in an area where people play and swim and party. It is just inexcusable.”
Hayden said signs warning of potential health dangers should be posted immediately along the creek and on nearby beaches.
The overflow gate, at the end of Jackson Avenue, near Jefferson Boulevard, has been part of the sewer system for more than 30 years. The sewage spills into Ballona Creek through it. The runoff comes from the Los Angeles sewer line that carries waste from the Westside and San Fernando Valley to the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in El Segundo.
In the past 10 months, 1.2 million gallons of sewage have spilled into the creek, according to the regional water board.
The Jackson gate is opened during heavy storms or when the sewer malfunctions, according to Los Angeles sanitation officials. Excess waste then flows five miles down Ballona Creek to the ocean.
Hayden said he learned of the sewage release from residents who complained to his Santa Monica office. An ocean swimmer saw sewage floating off Playa del Rey and a construction worker was sprayed by sewage from the gate, he said.
Waste has overflowed into the creek as many as 12 times since last September, according to records from the regional water board. The releases have ranged from 20,000 gallons to 500,000 gallons.
The county Health Department was to begin taking samples Friday in search of organic and heavy metal wastes in the creek and ocean, a spokesman said. Officials said they will know more about the health danger when test results come back, in about a week.
Dan Fresquez, enforcement coordinator for the county’s hazardous-waste control program, said Hayden told his office about the problem.
“In my opinion it is definitely a health concern,” Fresquez said. “Sewage, in general, can cause a variety of gastrointestinal and other illnesses.”
Officials in the Los Angeles city sanitation bureau admitted that the release system has faults.
“The condition that exists is not the best,” said Sterling Buesch, assistant director of the bureau. “It is not really what you would like, but you have no choice but to bypass at that point. If it does not flow out there it will be coming out of sewer manholes, or something else.
“At least it is coming out at one point there, where you can have some degree of control over what is discharged.”
A detector on the flood gate alerts engineers at the Hyperion treatment plant when sewage is about to spill into the creek so crews can shovel chlorine salts into the flow.
Hayden called this a “crude disinfecting method.”
“We question whether there is sufficient retention time for these chlorine salts to react and have their desired effect of disinfecting the sewage,” Hayden’s letter to the regulatory agency said.
City officials acknowledged that improvements are needed and plans are being drawn by engineers for a gate that will strain larger solids and add chlorine automatically. It will cost $2.2 million and should be built sometime early next year, according to Brian Griffith, head of the city’s waste water engineering division.
Workers who shovel chlorine into the sewage are supposed to file reports that are sent to the water quality board. Ghirelli said, however, that the written reports have not always been filed. He conceded that his department will have to be more vigilant in assuring that the reports are completed.
Ghirelli said that according to those reports that were completed, as many as half of the releases into the creek came in dry weather, not during storms. He said the gate should only be used during storms.
“Some of them were during dry times,” Ghirelli said. “There was some sort of emergency at the plant. There is no excuse for that sort of thing to happen.”
The largest overflow in the past year occurred Jan. 21, apparently during dry weather, Ghirelli said.
He said he will report to the water board on the overflow problem and that fines of up to $10,000 per day and $20 per gallon could be levied against the City of Los Angeles.
“If it is something that could have been avoided and should have been avoided the board will consider taking action,” Ghirelli said. “I’m not saying they will but it is very likely they will consider it.”
Reluctant to Fine Offenders
Hayden said that the water board has been reluctant to fine offenders. “The fact of the matter is that they have done nothing and when you do that, it is like giving a permit to allow the pollution to continue.”
Hayden said he hoped Ghirelli, who has been on the job just 18 months, and a new board will be more likely to fine offenders.
“Were you or I or a private company to dump raw sewage into Ballona Creek, the district attorney would crack down for a major violation of the law,” Hayden said. But a “cozy relationship” has developed over the years between the water board, a state body, and sanitation officials in the city of Los Angeles, Hayden said.
City sanitation officials said improvements are being planned that could eliminate overflows into Ballona Creek.
One plan would redirect some sewage from the north outfall sewer to another sewer that carries far less waste, according to Griffith, the waste water engineer. A mile-long, $11-million connection would reroute as much as 30% of the sewage to the other line, Griffith said.
There are design problems with the bypass, but it should be completed by 1988, Griffith said.
Additional relief will be provided by the construction in the San Fernando Valley of the Tillman sewage treatment plant, according to Buesch, assistant director of the Los Angeles sanitation bureau. When the plant begins operation in the next few months, its treated sewage will be released into the Los Angeles River and not into the line that has been overflowing into Ballona Creek, Buesch said.
Overflows into the creek will be virtually eliminated by the improvements, Griffith said.
“Those plans are merely on the drafting board,” Hayden said. “And they are long overdue. This has been going on for years without any public knowledge.”
Hayden said he was told by Ghirelli that even with the improvements, sewage might still have to be released into the creek during floods and other emergencies.
The assemblyman said he also worries about sewage overflows in other areas, including the Venice canals. In late February, a Venice pumping plant shut down during a power outage and up to 50 gallons of sewage spilled into the canals.
Hayden said a memo on the report of the incident said, “We were lucky.”
“What they meant is that they were lucky that the power went back on before the canal filled with sewage,” Hayden said.