L.A. City, County Back Bid to Ease Rules on Sewage


Arousing concerns that Los Angeles city and county are backing away from court-ordered commitments to clean up Santa Monica Bay, local officials are lobbying for federal legislation that would relax requirements for more advanced treatment of sewage discharged into the ocean.

The legislation, approved Wednesday by a House subcommittee, is part of a national effort to ease some of the more costly burdens of the federal Clean Water Act. The full House is not expected to vote on the issue before May.

Officials say the bill, if approved, could save water-rate payers in Los Angeles several hundred million dollars--the estimated cost of sewage treatment improvements that both the city and county agreed to make in settling lawsuits brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several environmental groups.


Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach) introduced the measure after similar legislation was offered on behalf of Orange County and San Diego.

“We wanted to maintain a level playing field from Point Conception to the Mexican border,” said Ron Deaton, city of Los Angeles chief legislative analyst. “We wanted to make sure that . . . the same rules applied here as there.”

For environmentalists, however, the proposed legislation looms as a reversal of hard-won gains in a decade-long battle to make coastal waters safe for humans and marine life.

“Santa Monica Bay is the loser,” said Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, one of the groups that sued to compel more advanced sewage treatment.

Gold accused officials of acting in bad faith by pushing for the legislation without consulting any of the parties to the litigation, including the judges who presided over the consent decrees binding the city and county to do secondary treatment of ocean-bound sewage.

J. P. Ellman, president of the city’s Board of Public Works, said that, in contrast with normal procedure, the legislation “wasn’t taken to the City Council for consideration” before city officials began lobbying for it in Congress.


Acknowledging that about 60% of Los Angeles’ sewage has been subject to secondary treatment for many years, Gold said human health is less a concern than effects on marine life.

“It’s a matter of changes in species,” Gold said, “of whole groups of organisms dropping to zero in polluted areas.”

Robin Roberts of the Clean Water Network, an environmental group in Washington, said there have been numerous examples of swimmers, especially in San Diego, showing ill effects from polluted seawater, such as sore throats, rashes and gastroenteritis.

“There are undeniable real-world effects on human health of sewage fouling water because of a lack of secondary treatment,” Roberts said.

The pending legislation, however, would exempt San Diego from secondary treatment on the basis that its sewage is now dumped far enough out to sea--more than two miles--and deep enough that additional treatment would not make a significant improvement.

Primary waste treatment filters out larger solids, while secondary treatment introduces biological agents that remove more of the solids as well as other organic and toxic materials.


Unlike Los Angeles, San Diego has no legal obligation to do secondary treatment.

The relief sought by Los Angeles city and county would not exempt the municipalities from more treatment, but would allow officials to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for waivers postponing additional treatment for up to 10 years. The waivers would be contingent on the EPA’s findings that more treatment was not needed.

But officials said such conditional exemptions might necessitate reopening the court cases that led to the requirements for more treatment by both the city and the county.

“Obviously, the judge is going to have something to say about any changes,” Ellman said. Pat McNelly, a spokesman for the Orange County Sanitation District, which treats waste water for 2.1 million residents and businesses in northern and central Orange County, said the district welcomes the legislation but had not lobbied for it.

“What it would do is verify what most of us have been saying for a long time,” he said, “that the current level of treatment that we’ve been applying is adequate for ocean protection and public safety.”

Times staff writer David Haldane in Orange County contributed to this story.