Editor's note: This Aug. 3 in-depth piece was originally published in Circling the News.
When water started backing up in the headwaters of the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant on July 11, back-up systems went into operation, according to public spokesperson Elena Stern, but it wasn’t enough.
“There was more debris than we’ve ever seen before,” Stern told Circling the News by phone on August 2.
As reported on July 30 in the L.A. Times (“Damaged Hyperion Plant Is Releasing Partially Treated Sewage into Santa Monica Bay”), “The surge of wastewater sent workers fleeing for their lives and has left the plant in a damaged state.”
“It was a major event,” Stern said, noting that even though about half of the 200-acre plant had flooded with wastewater, “back-up systems were in place; the facility never fully shut down.”
Around 8:10 p.m. that day, there clearly was a problem and per protocol, LA Sanitation notified the State of California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and the U.S. National Response Team that sewage had spilled into the ocean. Cal OES then notified the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the L.A. County Department of Public Health – Environmental Health Program County.
An estimated 17 million gallons of sewage spilled into Santa Monica Bay from the Hyperion Plant in El Segundo.
Plant staffers were onsite all night. The overflow of wastewater from the plant headworks flowed through roadways within the plant, inundating multiple buildings, flooding underground pipe galleries, submerging equipment and causing significant damage.
Around 4:30 a.m., the time when there is minimum flow to the facility, a previously submerged metal plate was lifted to provide an opening for plant flows to bypass the bar screen filters at the plant headworks and flow downstream into treatment processes. The opening of the bypass gate stopped flooding within the plant and overflow of wastewater into the one-mile outfall.
What was the debris that almost caused the shutdown of the plant?
“The usual construction material, plastics, Styrofoam, but more than we’ve ever seen before,” Stern said. “The facility is not intended to be a trash collector.”
The trash most likely came through the sewer system, via removal of man-hole covers. “There are 6,700 miles of sewer lines,” Stern said, noting that an investigation has started to look for the source of the debris. “We’re doing a survey and looking at all the lines.”
According to the L.A. City Sanitation website on July 21, “It is expected to take a month or more to repair damaged facilities and equipment in order to restore full functionality to Hyperion.”
“We’re removing the wastewater that is still there,” Stern said Monday. “We’re in full recovery mode and making good progress.”
Stern was asked if the facility would be fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for violation of the federal Clean Water Act. “That’s still to be determined,” she said.
Although the sewage discharge started on July 11 in the evening, beach closure did not occur until late morning on July 12 and notification and press releases did not go out until late afternoon, even at nearby Dockweiler Beach.
“The handling of this [sewage] release and the necessary public notification were failures,” noted a July 19 report by Citygate Associates, a private contractor for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a Board of Supervisors meeting on July 27: “I want to start by apologizing to the board and the public for our failures in responding. There aren’t any excuses.”
The Citygate report noted, “The L.A. County Office of Emergency Management did not get calls or emails returned from the Department of Public Health.”
Its summary noted, “The Plant made the required notification to the state. . . The off-Plant response and the protection of the public is conducted by the local government.”
The concluding opinion of the report was clear: “The handling of this release and the necessary public notification were failures . . .This incident is a warning, as the Plant had a ‘dry season’ debris flow. The Plant and its partners need to learn from this ‘near miss’ and if this could be a new normal, agencies must establish faster, better procedures.”
On Monday, Rep. Ted Lieu Tuesday called for an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into the sewage spill.
"Given the severity of recent incidents, the subsequent and continued discharge of untreated and partially treated wastewater near highly trafficked beaches, and the lack of clear communication by the city of Los Angeles, an investigation into the facility's operations, response, and environmental impact is warranted," Lieu, D-Torrance, wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and NOAA Administrator Richard W. Spinard.
"As the city of Los Angeles discharged this wastewater and facility operators attempted repairs, key local first responders and nearby cities were not immediately informed of the discharge in the nearby ocean," he said, adding that it may have violated a 2007 California law he authored to improve reporting of sewage spills.