A Long Beach city councilman is calling for a study to help determine if the city should oppose a county sanitation group's efforts to skirt federal standards in the treatment of sewage funneled into San Pedro Bay.
Councilman Warren Harwood said he is concerned about the potential public health risks if the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, a coalition of 25 sanitation agencies, receive permission to skip advanced treatment of the 350 million gallons of sewage they dump each day.
The group--representing more than 4 million people in cities from Lancaster to Long Beach--has applied for a waiver of the federal Clean Water Protection Act, which requires that all sewage receive advanced or "secondary" treatment before it is discharged into the sea.
No hearing date has been set, but officials say the matter will probably go before the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board later this year.
All raw sewage is given primary treatment, a process that allows solids to settle. Secondary treatment involves a biological process that helps cleanse the effluent further.
Seeking Long Beach Study
Harwood said he plans to ask his council colleagues on Tuesday to have the city Health Department study the question. If the study finds a potential health risk, he promises to push for a council vote against the sanitation group's efforts to have the treatment waived.
"The dumping of sewage in the ocean has been a problem historically, and I want to make sure that any future impact is limited," Harwood said. "We've got a lot at stake. That ocean environment is going to change if we abuse it."
As proof, he pointed to the county Department of Health Services' decision last month to post warnings about the potential dangers in eating contaminated fish from San Pedro and Santa Monica bays.
Sanitation officials maintain, however, that local coastal waters were contaminated during the 1950s and 1960s, when chemical plants dumped DDT and other toxic substances into the ocean. The treated sewage flowing into the ocean today is not contributing to the health risk, they say.
Currently, about 15% of the sewage piped to a discharge area two miles off White Point is given secondary treatment, while the other 85% gets only primary treatment.
Sanitation officials say, however, that the capacity for secondary treatment at the group's Carson treatment plant will be boosted later this year to about 60%; the remaining 40% will continue to get primary treatment. They say they would like to avoid any further secondary treatment because of the cost of building additional facilities.
Settlement Is Improved
Charles Carry, chief engineer and general manager of the county Sanitation Districts, said primary treatment has been perfected to a point where it is nearly as effective as secondary treatment.
Synthetic chemicals have been developed to cause particles in sewage to lump together and settle more in the primary treatment, Carry said.
While primary treatment once caused about 60% of the solids to settle out, that proportion can be raised to 80% with the use of the chemicals, Carry said. Guidelines of the Clean Water Protection Act would require the group to remove about 90% of the solids, he said.
"Our feeling is that when you consider the cost factors and everything else, the difference between 80% and 90% is not that great," Carry said. "What we're saying is that the amount of sewage we put in the ocean would not have an adverse impact."
Going to full secondary treatment would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly for expansion of the group's Carson sewage treatment plant, Carry said.
Disposal of the additional sludge that settles out during the treatment process would be a further headache, he said. The sludge is usually trucked to landfills.
The sanitation group, however, has embarked on a plan to build a $150-million facility in Carson to produce electricity by burning the sludge. But more sludge means more burning and, thus, more air pollution, Carry said.
Fish Food or Poison?
While sanitation experts point to such factors, the most dogged debate has revolved around the environmental effect of dumping sewage in the ocean. (The City of Los Angeles is served by a second ocean outfall line to the north, at Playa del Rey. The city is also seeking a waiver on secondary treatment regulations.)
Some marine biologists have argued that full secondary treatment is needed to disperse the effects of sewage on the ocean habitat. They say sewage dumping has reduced the number of fish species and other organisms in local waters.
Those opinions have been countered by Willard Bascom, director of the Coastal Water Research Project, an organization that has monitored San Pedro Bay for more than a decade.