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L.A. councilman wants answers after ‘horrifying’ waste washes ashore

Beach Spill

Cleanup contractors for the city of Los Angeles pick up tampon applicators that washed ashore at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey on  Sept. 24, 2015.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Weeks after a sordid tide of tampon applicators, syringes and other waste washed ashore from the Santa Monica Bay, a Los Angeles city councilman says he wants answers.

The filth forced the closure of Dockweiler State Beach  and other nearby beaches for several days in September as cleanup crews picked up plastic debris, including condoms, hypodermic needles and plastic casings for tampons. Sanitation officials say that nearly 3,000 pounds of debris have been collected so far.

What caused the torrent of trash remains unclear. City sanitation officials believe the spill might have been triggered by heavy rains that flushed old trash out of a rarely used pipe leading from the aging Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant — the biggest and oldest wastewater plant run by the city.

But the spill is still under investigation. With El Niño expected to usher in more rain this winter, Councilman Mike Bonin and environmental activists said the city must figure out what happened and take action to make sure it doesn’t occur again.

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At a news conference Tuesday, Bonin said the public needs to know if the “absolutely horrifying” spill was an isolated incident or whether the city is still at risk. He released a proposal asking sanitation officials to report back to the council about what caused the spill and what steps they were taking to prevent more trash from ending up on beaches as L.A. braces for heavy rains.

Environmental activists from the group Heal the Bay added that the spill made it disgustingly clear why Angelenos shouldn’t flush anything that isn’t biodegradable.

“We wouldn’t have to be concerned about this if we weren’t flushing trash down our toilets,” Heal the Bay data analyst Leslie Griffin said in an earlier phone interview.

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Bonin, who said he learned about the trash through Facebook messages from residents, also called for the creation of an emergency response team that would include a wide range of government and community representatives to help get out the word about spills or other bay emergencies.

The Hyperion plant normally channels its treated water through a five-mile pipeline into the bay. But when the rains hit — nearly doubling the amount of water flowing to Hyperion — pumps that were supposed to push water into that pipeline didn’t work properly because of ongoing repairs, according to sanitation officials.

Plant officials decided to divert some of the water to a shorter emergency pipe that discharges wastewater closer to shore. That pipe had been sitting dormant for more than nine years, according to sanitation spokeswoman Heather Johnson. Sanitation officials suggested that the emergency use of the pipe might have flushed out old trash that had accumulated inside it from past spills.

Even if the rains had not hit, however, the city had already been planning to switch to the shorter pipe as it undertook repairs at the Hyperion plant. Environmental activists want the city to detail whether those repairs are still on schedule and whether there will be any delay in switching back to the five-mile pipeline.

Heal the Bay has also raised concerns about whether the spill was truly an isolated incident or was just more obvious to beachgoers because treated wastewater was released closer to shore than usual, rather than five miles away.

Its president, Alix Hobbs, said “the plastic doesn’t appear to be degraded in any way.” But she added that plastic doesn’t degrade quickly.

Sanitation officials say they have made several changes following the spill, including installing nets where the shorter emergency pipe and a pipe leading from an Imperial Highway storm drain empty into the bay and adding more screens to block floating items before they enter the shorter pipe, as well as examining tanks more often.

Johnson, the sanitation spokeswoman, said the department is undertaking “an extensive forensic investigation” over the next few months to pinpoint “the source and cause of the debris.” Bonin has asked for a report back to city lawmakers within a few weeks.

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Follow @latimesemily for what’s happening at Los Angeles City Hall

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