The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board is considering imposing fines of $10,000 against the City of Los Angeles for each major discharge of raw sewage into Ballona Creek.
In the last two weeks, raw sewage has reportedly been discharged into the creek three times from the city's overflow system near Jackson Street in Culver City. The latest incident occurred Monday. the city's Bureau of Sanitation has posted workers every day except Sunday at the overflow to monitor and disinfect any additional spills.
Nelson Wong, the water quality board's senior water resources control engineer, said that as far as he knows, the fines, if enacted, would be the first imposed against the city for discharge of raw sewage from its admittedly antiquated sewer system.
A decision on the fines will be made as soon as possible, Wong said.
Wong said that the water quality board also is trying to determine whether the city's Bureau of Sanitation followed board procedures that require telephone and written communications on all sewage spills. Wong said the board was informed by telephone of 18 to 20 spills in the past year, but could find only two or three written reports on file.
Wong said that the water board was surprised to learn of the discharges in the dry season.
"Our understanding with the sanitation bureau was that the discharges of sewage occurred only during the rainy season, when storm water infiltrated the sewer system," Wong said. "Obviously, this is unacceptable. This is a very serious matter."
Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who brought the spills to light by complaining that sewage in the creek presented a health hazard, this week accused the water control board of having a "cozy" relationship with the Bureau of Sanitation.
"We have been told one lie after another," Hayden said. "If a private citizen did the same thing the Bureau of Sanitation does, he'd be thrown in jail. My concern is that the problem is far worse, that there has been a lot of unreported dumping of raw sewage going on."
Hayden has called for the posting of warning signs at the creek and in Playa del Rey, where the sewage eventually drains, to alert the public to possible health hazards.
Wong said that his agency has no jurisdiction over health matters, "only over water quality," but he said the signs were not a bad idea. The county Health Department is studying bacteria in the creek and ocean waters through which the sewage travels.
Harry M. Sizemore, assistant director of the city Bureau of Sanitation, said that the water in the ocean is safe. "I swim there," he said. "And several members of our bureau are avid surfers who use the area. None of us have ever caught any diseases from it."
Wong said that his agency is not in a position to determine whether there have been more discharges than the 18 to 20 reported by telephone.
"There is no way for us to know," Wong said. "And even if my gut feeling were that we were not being informed about every discharge, I would not say it without proof."
Sizemore said that his agency has never lied about the problems of its sewer system. He said, however, that dry-weather discharges of raw sewage are a recent occurrence.
Wednesday, his bureau announced a series of actions, some of them short-term, others long-term, to solve the problem.
Next week, the bureau will, at a cost of $2 million, install a screen flow system with automatic chlorination in the Jackson Street outflow. Previously, workers shoveled chlorine onto the sewage after it was dumped into the creek.
The bureau also is improving its system of detecting overflows and is setting up an alarm system that will go off in the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in El Segundo to alert workers to a potential problem.
Workmen will visit the Jackson Street gate in the afternoons when the overflows are likely to occur, Sizemore said. "We will be there every day but Sunday, when the system appears to work just fine," he said.
Long-term plans to improve the system include an $11-million allocation to build a diversion line in 1988 and $17 million to clean the existing system sometime after the diversion line is completed.
"We cannot clean the lines before then," Sizemore said, "because the system is at or near capacity."
He said that this fall's opening of the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys will provide some relief by siphoning off 20 million to 50 million gallons of sewage a day. The entire city sewer system handles a daily average of 420 million gallons, which is "very near" the capacity of the system, Sizemore said.
He said that the bureau also is proceeding with a $40-million program to seal and repair leaks in the system, as well as checking into illegal hookups to the system.
"Apparently what is happening," Sizemore said, "is people are hooking up the eaves on their houses directly to the sewer system, rather than to the storm drains."
He said that it will take up to $250 million to construct an entirely satisfactory sewer system in Los Angeles. Sizemore said there are no immediate plans to raise the annual $60 residential sewer fee.