Sewage agency to pay millions for spill

Times Staff Writer

The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County has agreed to pay more than $2.5 million to settle a dispute over a massive spill earlier this year that sent more than 800,000 gallons of sewage into the Pacific Ocean and coastal groundwater supplies.

The agency’s agreement with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and Santa Monica Baykeeper avoids what was expected to be a prolonged legal fight over the spill, which was the largest into the Santa Monica Bay in a decade.

“This was a major spill, and it required an important and unequivocal response in terms of the penalty to be assessed,” David Nahai, water quality board chairman, said Thursday.

The Jan. 15 spill resulted in 65,000 gallons of untreated wastewater flowing into the ocean, and an additional 780,000 gallons reaching groundwater supplies beneath Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach.


The exact cause of the spill has not been made known. It closed beaches for several days.

But a preliminary county investigation found that all four safeguards designed to prevent a major sewage spill failed at the pumping station. Both the electrical system and emergency backup didn’t work, the report found, nor did an alarm system that would have immediately alerted officials. A separate system designed to measure the depth and pressure inside the pumping station also failed.

After the incident, sanitation district officials vowed to make sure that other pumping stations didn’t have similar problems. Nahai said that as part of the settlement, the Sanitation Districts would be released from liability for 93 sewage spills in the last five years.

“But that doesn’t release them from doing something about the underlying causes,” Nahai said, adding that a letter was sent to the Sanitation Districts telling it to investigate the cause of the January spill.


Most of the settlement money will fund environmental research programs, including $2.2 millionfor the San Gabriel River Discovery Center, which is under construction at Whittier Narrows.

Some of the money will go to study bacteria sources in the Redondo Beach area.

Officials at the Sanitation Districts could not be reached for comment. But in a statement, one official said the agreement would allow the agency to move forward.

“The settlement agreement makes additional and critically needed funding available for community-based research and education on water quality,” said Jim Stahl, chief engineer of the Sanitation Districts. “We strive for zero overflows, but short of achieving this perfection, I cannot think of a better outcome to the 93 overflows.”

The Manhattan Beach spill prompted debate about what more could be done to prevent sewage spills.

Some environmentalists have called on officials to retrofit all pumping stations with underground storage facilities to capture leaking sewage that would otherwise flow onto streets and beaches, as well as into flood-control channels and the ocean. Sanitation district officials said such structures would be hugely expensive.

The county sanitation agency had begun upgrading aging -- and less versatile -- equipment, specifically the electrical control panels at the Manhattan Beach pumping station, according to the report on the incident.

Nahai said the agreement was important because the Sanitation Districts and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board would have to continue to work together.


“This relationship is going to continue,” Nahai said. “The parties in this case came to the conclusion that it’s better since there’s been wrongdoing because of negligence, to face up to the penalty rather than pour money into the dark drain of litigation.”

He said the water board had been stuck in a quagmire of litigation with inland cities over urban runoff for upward of five years, costing all sides millions of dollars.