L.A. Faces Fines for Sewer Spills
A federal judge on Monday found the city of Los Angeles liable for hundreds of sewage spills that have fouled neighborhoods and polluted the ocean, marking a turning point in a four-year court fight aimed at forcing the city to repair its often clogged and leaky sewer lines.
The city faces fines of up to $8 million under the initial ruling by U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, who found the city liable for 297 spills over the course of a year. Fines of up to $27,500 per spill may continue to mount with every violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The suit was brought by federal and state officials, environmental organizations and homeowner groups in Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw district and Leimert Park.
“These kinds of spills continue to happen on average two times a day,” said Fran Diamond, chairwoman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. “It’s from roots blocking lines, grease from restaurants. The city should be able to provide basic city service. This isn’t a Third World city. We should be able to do better.”
Adel Hagekhalil, a division manager in the city’s bureau of sanitation, said the city is stepping up its schedule of cleaning pipelines and replacing sewer lines that have broken or become overwhelmed. He said a citywide program to cut down on restaurants dumping grease down the drain has resulted in a 30% reduction in spills from grease-clogged pipes.
“The Board of Public Works is committed to reducing sewage spills,” Hagekhalil said. “We have a goal to reduce spills by 25% between now and 2005.”
Los Angeles has 6,500 miles of sewer lines and dozens of pumping stations that funnel water to four treatment plans, including the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant in Playa del Rey. About half of the city’s sewer pipes are a half-century old and, according to state and federal officials, have a sewage spill rate of more than double of other Southern California cities.
Fixing a system that large with so many problems will probably require more than just goals, said Steve Fleischli, executive director of the nonprofit Santa Monica BayKeeper.
“When we filed this lawsuit they had 350 sewage spills that they reported. In 2001, they reported 682 spills. A 25% reduction in that doesn’t even put us in a place when we started.”
Fleischli, who has been pressing to settle the case, is angry that the city redirected $600,000 from its sewer maintenance fund to hire a private law firm to fight the lawsuit and then, on Monday, conceded liability in all but four of the 297 spills, which occurred from July 2001 through July 2002.
In the remaining four spills, the city argued that it is not liable because raw sewage was captured on city streets and never made it to a protected stream, river or ocean. Judge Lew dismissed that defense, ruling that the spills violated the Clean Water Act even if the sewage didn’t reach the Los Angeles River, Ballona Creek, the Santa Monica Bay or the harbor.
That ruling was significant because it means the city could be found liable for thousands of spills that have occurred since 1998, not just those that have been documented as having reached protected waters.
The potential for millions of dollars in extra fines may be enough to pressure the city to settle the lawsuit, lawyers for the plaintiffs hope.
Lawyers for the groups that brought the suit want the city to adopt an enforceable schedule of reducing spills by a certain percentage each year, Hagekhalil said. If the schedule isn’t met, the city would face penalties and automatic increases in required cleaning, upgrades and maintenance.
The city is asking for more flexibility, he said, without arbitrary standards. “The city has invested over $1 billion in the last 10 years to renew and upgrade its sewer system. We have committed $2 billion over the next 10 years.”
Such investment may not be enough to keep pace with aging infrastructure -- a problem faced by many other cities, officials said.
The EPA has brought similar suits against Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and Baltimore. San Diego, under an administrative order from the EPA, recently increased residential sewer fees to pay for upgrades to reduce a pattern of spills similar to those in Los Angeles.
“Sewage spills are a major source of pollution and a significant threat to human health,” said Wayne Nastri, the EPA’s regional administrator in San Francisco. “Making sure municipalities manage their sewage properly moves us toward the EPA’s goal of purer water
Parts of the system seem to be straining under current capacity.
Residents of Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw district and Leimert Park have spent decades complaining about a foul “rotten egg” odor from sewer gases from the system around Rodeo Road and La Cienega Boulevard.
“It comes and it goes, but when it comes it’s bad,” said Calvin Hill, who lives nearby. “It permeates the house and the neighbor’s house. It gets into the clothes and it stays.”
Opal Young of the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Homeowners Coalition said residents have been getting the runaround for years when they tried to find a responsible agency to take action. “It’s been going on for 30 years,” she said. “You are driving down the road and it hits you. It’s like rotten eggs and body parts. People cannot barbecue outdoors.”
City officials expect that particular problem to be remedied in about a year when crews compete a $280-million sewer upgrade to handle extra capacity, as well as build seven odor-control facilities at a cost about $45 million.