Sewage Spill Keeps 18 Miles of Coast Closed : Environment: L.A. officials dump 8 million gallons into Santa Monica Bay when storm-swollen sewers threaten to overflow into city streets.


An 18-mile swath of Los Angeles County coastline from Topanga Beach to Palos Verdes Estates will remain closed at least until Tuesday after a massive sewage spill dumped nearly 8 million gallons into Santa Monica Bay.

The spill, among the biggest ever from the problem-plagued Los Angeles sewer system, is the second assault in a month on Southern California's environmentally sensitive beaches, and beach-goers and tourists were none too happy about the situation Sunday.

"I can't believe they allowed this to happen," said Karyn Maresic, 26, a computer programmer who had bicycled Sunday from her home in Hermosa Beach north to Ballona Creek in Playa del Rey.

City officials said they intentionally diverted sewage into Ballona Creek on Saturday to prevent it from overflowing into city streets. The sewage flowed from the creek into Santa Monica Bay.

Maresic said, "You can't go to the beach anywhere in Southern California now."

About 20 miles of oil-stained coastline in Orange County also have been closed indefinitely because of the Feb. 7 spill of 394,000 gallons of oil from the tanker American Trader.

"It sure has been an awfully tough few weeks for the beaches of Southern California," said Catherine Tyrell, director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, a nonprofit coalition of government agencies and environmental groups, including Heal the Bay.

It was Saturday's heavy rains that forced the operators of Los Angeles' Hyperion sewage treatment plant to divert 7.6 million gallons of partly treated waste water into Ballona Creek to prevent raw sewage from flooding city streets, said Hyperion manager John Crosse.

"Most of the time we have a river of sewage coming in, but Saturday we had a raging river," said Dave Gumaer, a superintendent at Hyperion. "Everybody looks at us like we've committed a crime (by releasing the sewage), but we had to do this to make sure the public was not exposed (to sewage) on the streets."

Saturday's spill was the largest in recent years from the trouble-plagued Los Angeles sewer system, Crosse said.

Overburdened by skyrocketing growth in the city's population, the aging system has periodically dumped sewage into the bay, including 43.2 million gallons during a heavy rainstorm in 1978, Crosse said. In 1987, 4.1 million gallons leaked into the bay--also as the result of overflow from a storm, Crosse said.

"We're spending about $4 billion over the next eight years to upgrade the infrastructure so these things don't keep happening," Crosse said. "Our goal is to limit the spills during heavy rains to once every 10 years, but we're not there yet."

Construction has begun on the $150-million North Outfall Relief Sewer, a five-mile, 12-foot-wide sewer line from Culver City to the Hyperion plant near El Segundo, which will dramatically increase the city's sewage capacity when it is completed in 1993, Crosse said.

"The new sewer pipe should contain this kind of overflow from a storm--at least until growth catches up," Crosse said.

In the meantime, the city built a $2-million treatment facility in 1986 on Jackson Street in Culver City to hold 1 million gallons of sewage in the event of a major storm like the one that swept the Southland this weekend. The treatment facility--which is composed of four concrete tanks--is designed to partially treat and then release the excess sewer water into Ballona Creek, Crosse said.

"It worked just like it was supposed to," he said.

When the weekend storm dumped more than two inches of rain by Saturday afternoon, sewer pipes were flooded with water pouring through openings in manholes, Crosse said. The sewer system, which normally processes about 450 million gallons per day during the peak period from noon to 10 p.m., was overwhelmed by 200 million extra gallons of water from the storm, Crosse said.

The excess water was diverted to the Culver City treatment facility, where most heavy solids were removed and chlorine was added before the sewage was dumped into the creek, Crosse said.

"It would have popped the manhole covers and spilled onto the streets if we hadn't released it," Crosse said.

County health officials Sunday were testing water from Santa Monica Bay for chloroform bacteria, which survive about two days in saltwater and can cause diarrhea and other intestinal problems, said Jack Petralia, director of environmental protection for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. Meanwhile, signs warning beach-goers of the spill were posted Sunday, and lifeguards were busy warning surfers and strollers to stay out of the water.

"Even though the (spilled) sewage has been chlorinated, we don't know to what extent, so we decided to play it safe and close the beaches at least until Tuesday," Petralia said. If test results show a continuing high bacteria count, the beaches would remain closed longer, he said.

Tyrell, director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, praised county health officials for swiftly reacting to the crisis and closing the beaches.

The sewage spill clearly indicates the pressing need to improve the sewers for the sake of the bay, she added.

"We really don't know the impact that these things have on marine life," Tyrell said.

Sunday, the beach at Playa del Rey, just south of the mouth of Ballona Creek, was strewn with debris washed down from the storm drains. A few hardy souls strolled along the shore, including the Killourhys, a family of five who were visiting Southern California from Scarsdale, N.Y.

Daniel Killourhy, a certified public accountant, commented that sewage and all, Santa Monica Bay still looked cleaner than the Hudson or East rivers, which wend their way around Manhattan.

"It's so beautiful here anyway," said Killourhy, pointing at the bay, which appeared almost aquamarine under the clouds. "You really ought to make sure you don't destroy it."

Times staff writer Steve Padilla contributed to this story.

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