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N. Hollywood Firms Cited in Tainting of Cesspools

Times Staff Writer

City industrial-waste inspectors have cited nine North Hollywood-area firms for allegedly putting chemical wastes into septic tanks and cesspools that can be used legally only for sewage disposal.

The violation notices, most of them issued last week, are part of an effort to keep chemical pollution of nearby city water wells from growing worse.

The investigation by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation is the first close surveillance of private sewage-disposal systems--even though a key report three years ago concluded that such systems easily could be used for illicit dumping of chemical waste.

The probe was prompted by pressure on the bureau from officials at the state Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles.

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Sanitation officials consistently maintained that they do not have a problem with private disposal systems. But there was no proof to back them up, said Hank Yacoub, supervising water-resources control engineer with the regional water board.

‘Still Not Sure’

Despite the violation notices, the city is “still not sure, based on the results of our sampling, that the underground septic tanks are causing a significant impact . . . to the underground water supply,” Robert Alpern, principal sanitary engineer with the Bureau of Sanitation, said last week.

Underground disposal systems, such as septic tanks and cesspools, are designed to trap sewage solids, which are degraded by bacteria. But the liquid waste is allowed to filter into the soil.

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Samples taken so far have shown quantifiable amounts of toxic chemicals in nine underground sewage systems, while in some 20 others, chemicals were at levels too low to be quantified or were not detected at all. City officials said that by the end of October, they expect to check about 40 more ground-disposal systems used by businesses that also use chemical solvents.

Liquid waste from several systems contained low levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), ranging from 10 to 30 parts per billion. TCE and PCE are the dry-cleaning and metal-degreasing compounds found most widely in area water wells. State health officials say drinking water containing 5 ppb of these compounds over long periods may slightly raise a person’s risk of getting cancer.

Waste from one cesspool contained 85,100 ppb of toluene, a toxic solvent and ingredient of gasoline. Samples from two other cesspools contained levels of methylene chloride, a suspected cancer-causing solvent, of 12,000 ppb and 980 ppb.

The recommended state-health limit for methylene chloride in drinking water is 40 ppb and for toluene is 100 ppb. However, neither toluene nor methylene chloride has been found in any significant amounts in nearby water wells.

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Companies issued violation notices are being required to pump out their septic tanks and cesspools and either discharge the waste into city sewers or--in the worst cases--truck the material to a hazardous-waste disposal site.

No Penalties Sought

City officials said there are no plans to seek penalties from the businesses cited, in part because of uncertainty over when and how the pollution occurred. Officials said repeated testing will be done to see if there is a continuing chemical discharge.

At Columbia Showcase and Cabinet Co., 11034 Sherman Way, where the high toluene level was found, an official said the firm would comply with the pump-out order although he did not know where the toluene came from.

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“We’re not in any kind of a business that produces anything like that,” said Sam Patterson, president of the firm.

An official at Chapman Studio Equipment Co., 12950 Raymer St., where the highest methylene chloride level was found, also said he does not know where the chemical came from but would pump out its cesspool.

“I just don’t understand how these things can happen, but we’re not going to argue with them,” said Ola Seger, secretary-treasurer of Chapman, speaking of the city inspectors.

Traces of industrial solvents--principally TCE and PCE--were first discovered in 1979 and 1980 in wells in North Hollywood and near Griffith Park that provide about 15% of the Los Angeles water supply.

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This water is pumped from the Valley to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers in East Los Angeles and south of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The city well fields--and neighboring ones operated by the cities of Burbank and Glendale and by the Crescenta Valley County Water District--have since been named to the state and federal Superfund cleanup lists.

Because the most contaminated wells are not being pumped and others are blended with clean aqueduct supplies, the water served to customers is safe, according to the DWP.

Pollution Spreading

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But the problem is a potential constraint on water supplies in the future, because the pollution is gradually spreading and spoiling more wells, water officials say.

Among suspected causes are leaks from underground tanks, accidental spills, deliberate dumping, and--in the case of the North Hollywood wells--chemical seepage from underground sewage systems.

Limited sampling in 1982 by the DWP showed chemical contamination in several underground cesspools.

The DWP did not report its findings to the Bureau of Sanitation for possible enforcement.

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But in 1983, the DWP summarized the findings in a lengthy public report recommending ways to curb further ground-water pollution.

The report called for regular testing of private sewage-disposal systems, which it termed “an attractive but unlawful alternative to proper waste disposal.”

The present probe represents the first such testing. Inspections before now chiefly have involved looking for chemical stains around sinks and toilet bowls, city officials say.

That is because the city’s “major thrust” has been to get businesses off private disposal systems, according to Alpern of the sanitation bureau.

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“How do you really control septic tanks?” he said. “The answer is, you don’t. . . . The answer is to get the sewers built and get these people off the septic tanks.”

That goal, however, is taking years to achieve.

One Year to Comply

The 1983 report’s recommendation that Valley businesses with access to sewers be forced to hook up was finally implemented last year by a City Council ordinance. The ordinance gives businesses that have sewers available one year to comply with a notice to connect.

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The sanitation bureau since has sent the one-year notices to 404 of 1,208 businesses, or a third of those that are to receive them.

A companion program to extend sewers into commercial and industrial areas of the Valley that now do not have them is not scheduled for completion until 1991.

Until private sewage systems can be eliminated, sanitation officials should monitor them as a precaution, said Mal Toy, a senior sanitary engineer with the Bureau of Sanitation.

Toy said the bureau still does not expect to find that ground disposal is seriously polluting the water, adding that if ground disposal is proving to be a major problem, the bureau will have “totally miscalculated” in its enforcement program.

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