It’s a Dirty Job--But Someone Has to Do It : Sanitation: Hyperion sewage treatment plant draws applause from environmentalists with improved procedures and $2.2-billion overhaul.


A woman once called the Hyperion sewage treatment plant in a panic: She accidentally flushed her wedding ring down the toilet.

Never mind that the huge Playa del Rey plant handles more than 300 million gallons of sewage a day--enough to fill the Forum in Inglewood three times over. The woman wanted Hyperion engineer John Crosse to find her ring.

Crosse, now the plant’s manager, recalled the incident, laughing and shaking his head: “I told her I’d keep an eye out for it.”


The public knows surprisingly little about Hyperion, the largest sewage treatment plant on the West Coast. The 144-acre, 780-employee complex treats a virtual river of waste from Los Angeles and eight other cities, using screens, chemicals, bacteria and a maze of pumps, pipes and tanks.

The lack of public awareness carried a price. For decades, the plant’s poor treatment and disposal practices went largely unchallenged, coating acres of Santa Monica Bay’s bottom with pollutants and killing marine life.

But since coming under pressure from environmentalists and government regulators in the mid-1980s, Hyperion has moved aggressively to clean up its act. The plant, operated by the city of Los Angeles on a budget of $85 million a year, has improved the processing of its ocean-bound wastewater, stopped dumping sludge at sea and initiated a $2.2-billion overhaul.

Though the progress has drawn applause from environmentalists, it has gone largely unnoticed by the public. That disappoints Hyperion employees, many of whom are intensely proud of their work.

“It’s frustrating. People just drive by and say, ‘There’s the poop factory,’ ” said John Dorsey, a Hyperion biologist.

Said Eileen White, who helps operate settling ponds at the plant: “People generally don’t want to know what happens after they push the little silver handle.”

Hyperion receives sewage through a 6,500-mile network of pipes that, if placed end to end, would reach Rome. Processing wastewater from sources ranging from industrial plants to residential toilets and sinks, Hyperion serves a 480-square-mile area that includes El Segundo, Culver City, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, San Fernando, Burbank, Glendale and virtually all of Los Angeles.

Flows from such a vast region can become overwhelming.

During heavy downpours, rainwater seeps into manholes and leaky sewer pipes, sometimes glutting Hyperion’s collection system. When that happens, excess sewage is diverted to a Culver City overflow plant and released, partially treated, into nearby Ballona Creek, which empties into Santa Monica Bay.

The city sent more than 66 million gallons into Ballona Creek during last month’s torrential rains, forcing the closure of county beaches.

And last November, a 40-million-gallon-a-day sewer line burst just north of Hyperion, releasing a deluge of raw sewage that threatened to flood the plant and seriously pollute Santa Monica Bay.

Luckily, the spill occurred near the end of another line being completed. The sewage gushed into the new pipe and was contained there while the ruptured line was repaired. Only a small amount of sewage made it into a nearby storm drain leading to the ocean, but beaches were closed as a precaution.

“The trouble is you can’t stop sewage from coming if something goes wrong,” said Ric Vardel, an operations manager at Hyperion who is on call 24 hours a day. “It just keeps coming.”

Sewage enters Hyperion through the plant’s headworks, where mechanical rakes and huge metal screens remove material euphemistically called “rags.”

Usually this material, which is removed and hauled to dumps, is the unsavory stuff one would expect: condoms, tampons, undissolved toilet paper, for example. But sometimes the sewers serve up surprises: Last fall, employees say, a television set surfaced, and several years ago a beat-up motorcycle emerged.

“Vandals for some reason get a kick out of throwing whatever they can down manholes,” says Crosse. “It happens about once a year.”

At the headworks, one of Hyperion’s more pungent places, workers show a gritty determination. After recounting war stories about freeing clogged equipment, employee Robert Blume points out that his efforts help society control waterborne diseases.

“Sure, this can be very distasteful, but we’re on the front line for civilization,” he says, as the mechanical rakes of the headworks churn behind him.

Hyperion separates sewage into solids, called sludge, and liquid, known as wastewater. In a process called primary treatment, the wastewater flows slowly through 300-foot-long tanks where sludge settles to the bottom and is scraped away mechanically by wooden slats.

About 40% of that treated wastewater is discharged through a 12-foot diameter underwater pipe extending five miles into Santa Monica Bay. Before the rest of the wastewater is pumped to sea, it undergoes secondary treatment in which air is bubbled into the wastewater to help aerobic bacteria remove more solids.

By the time wastewater leaves the plant, Hyperion has stripped it of 90% of solids. That compares to 60% a decade ago--a gain due largely to the plant’s intensive use of environmentally safe chemicals in recent years to aid in the settling of solids.

The turnaround started when Los Angeles, in a 1987 consent decree with state and federal regulators, promised to improve its wastewater treatment significantly by Dec. 31, 1998, to comply with the federal clean-water law.

Environmentalists, who helped force the agreement by drawing attention to Hyperion’s role in polluting the bay, now applaud the plant. Hyperion, they point out, is already meeting some of the accord’s key treatment targets, more than six years ahead of schedule.

“What the city has done is truly remarkable,” said Dorothy Green, president of the Santa Monica environmental group Heal the Bay. “They are really trying. The turnaround in attitude has been absolutely 180 degrees.”

Hyperion’s most important move from an environmental standpoint concerned sludge, the mudlike material separated from wastewater during the primary and secondary stages of treatment.

Sludge is fed into above-ground tanks called digesters, where about half of it is consumed by bacteria that thrive in an air-free environment. Until 1987, the remaining 50%--more than 100 tons a day--was pumped through another underwater pipeline extending seven miles offshore, blighting acres of ocean bottom in Santa Monica Bay.

But in 1987, the city stopped the discharges to comply with the consent decree, and has since begun recycling that sludge in a variety of ways.

About 20% is turned into a powder and burned to help generate power for the plant. The rest is trucked to farms for use as compost or fertilizer and to dumps, where it is spread as a cover over each day’s accumulation of trash.

Hyperion’s improved sludge-handling and wastewater treatment have caused a measurable recovery of Santa Monica Bay marine life such as shellfish and worms, scientists say.

“We’re reaping the benefits of Hyperion’s turnaround,” said Heal the Bay biologist Mark Gold. “We’re seeing incredible recovery in areas of the bay that had almost no marine life whatsoever.”

The bay will likely benefit from other Hyperion improvement projects as well.

A $124-million sewer line scheduled for completion this summer, for instance, will boost the capacity of Hyperion’s collection system. City officials say it will sharply reduce the need to release partially treated sewage into Ballona Creek during heavy rains.

Meanwhile, a water recycling project could reduce by up to 70 million gallons daily the amount of wastewater that Hyperion pumps in the ocean. A reclamation plant that regional water authorities plan to build in El Segundo will process treated wastewater from Hyperion so it can be put to such uses as industrial plant cooling and park and golf course irrigation.

Then there is the $2.2-billion plant overhaul, intended to allow Hyperion to provide full secondary treatment for all its wastewater by Dec. 31, 1998, as required by the 1987 consent decree.

The project, financed by the sale of revenue bonds, has stirred concern among nearby El Segundo residents who have complained in the past about odors and fumes from the plant. They argue that Los Angeles should not concentrate so much sewage treatment near neighborhoods--no matter how modern the plant.

“They keep telling me they’re putting in state-of-the-art equipment, and then when something goes wrong they say the state-of-the-art equipment didn’t function properly,” complained one resident who lives near the plant.

But supporters of the project argue that Hyperion, once overhauled, will do a far better job of controlling odors and fumes--and will further improve the treatment of the wastewater it discharges at sea.

That, they say, ought to interest the public.

“People ought to know that they’re no longer eco-criminals every time they flush,” said Felicia Marcus, president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. “They can feel good that their sewage treatment system is working.”

Down the Drain

Evey day, 310 million gallons of the Los Angeles’ area’s sewage flows into the Hyperion treatment plat in Playa del Rey, the largest on the West Coast. The plant separates the waste into liquids and solids. Liquids are treated ans pumped into Santa Monica Bay, while solids are used to fuel generators at the plant or trucked away for other uses. 1. SCREENING SEWAGE: Raw sewage is screened by steel bars that catch objects such as condoms, tampons and undissolved toilet paper. 2. TRUE GRIT: Sand and other grit settles to the bottom and is removed. 3. SETTLING TANKS: Sewage flows through 300-foot-long tanks where most solids settle out. About 40% of the resulting waste water is sent to the pump station for ocean disposal. 4. AIRING IT OUT: The rest of the wastewater goes to treatment basins, where air bubbles are introduced so aerobic bacteria--which need air to survive--consume remaining solids. 5. MORE SETTLING: Residue settles to the bottom, and the resulting wastewater goes to the pump station for ocean disposal. 6. INTO THE SEA: About 310 million gallons a day of treated wastewater is pumped nto Santa Monica Bay through a 5-mile-long concrete pipe. 7. SLUDGE BUSTERS: Solid waste, only a small fraction of the sewage treated, is piped into tanks called digesters where anaerobic bacteria, which need an oxygen-free environment, consume half the sludge. 8. SPINNING IT OUT: Centrifugal force removes water from the sludge, producing a muddy material called wetcake. 9. RECYCLING: About 20% of wetcake is turned into a powder that is burned in furnacs to elp generate electricity for the plant. The rest is trucked away for reuse as fertilizer, compost and landfill cover.