Los Angeles has missed a court-ordered deadline to stop the discharge of sewage sludge into Santa Monica Bay, but federal officials said Tuesday they may agree to a 7 1/2-month extension rather than ask for fines that could exceed $1,000 a day.
Paul Helliker, a project officer for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said negotiators have worked out a new deadline that would give the city until Feb. 15 to begin operating a $180-million sludge-combustion project at the Hyperion treatment plant in Playa del Rey.
The project, which would burn sewage sludge for energy, is expected to bring the city into compliance with 1972 federal laws that prohibit the offshore dumping of sludge. But the project has been delayed by a series of construction problems, forcing the city to miss a 5-year-old deadline that expired on Monday.
The city is under a court order to comply with federal ocean-protection laws as part of a 1980 lawsuit settlement with the EPA.
The EPA--one of two federal agencies responsible for enforcing the laws--already has studied the case and agreed to the 7 1/2-month extension as part of a compromise with city negotiators, Helliker said. In filing for the extension last October, city officials requested approval to continue dumping sludge until Nov. 1, 1986.
Now the compromise is awaiting action by the Justice Department, which is expected to approve the new deadline early this month, federal officials said. That would clear the way for its acceptance by the U.S. District Court, which has authority over the case, Helliker said.
"I think everybody agrees the city has done its best to meet the deadline," Helliker said. "Since all the parties agree . . . the court should accept it. We feel the (city's) arguments justify the extension."
City officials have blamed the project's construction delays on problems in acquiring and installing much of the specialized equipment that would help dry and burn the sludge. The system is designed to handle 160 tons of processed sludge a day, serving a 600-square-mile sewer network in Los Angeles, Glendale, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley.
Larry Lewis, a deputy city engineer involved in designing the system, said the proposed February deadline would not necessarily allow enough time to complete the project. He said the city would try to meet the new time schedule but added that the city could request another extension if delays continue to plague construction.
"It will be very, very tight," he said. "All things being equal, we have a shot at it. But there could be fire, flood--things we have no control over."
A number of environmental groups have blamed the continuing discharge of sludge for contributing to toxic pollution in the bay and have criticized the city for failure to comply with the 13-year-old federal law. In April, state health officials warned that fish caught in and around Santa Monica Bay may contain dangerous levels of DDT and other toxic pollutants.
"To continue to allow Los Angeles to dump sludge into the ocean . . . is another example of callous disregard for the public," said Howard Bennett, head of an environmental coalition that has fought sewage-dumping practices at Hyperion. "What's happening now has happened for years and years. It's 'tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow'--and tomorrow never comes."
Bennett said federal officials should levy heavy fines and force city contractors to work overtime to accelerate construction.
But City Councilwoman Joy Picus, chairman of the city's three-member public works committee, said the city is taking every practical step to complete the project. Paying for large amounts of overtime construction would dramatically increase the cost of the project, she said.
'City Isn't Gaining'
"It's a lot easier to criticize than to comply" with the deadline, Picus said. "The city isn't gaining anything by delaying. We've still got to do the project."
As part of the 1980 lawsuit settlement, city officials agreed to establish a $2.1-million trust fund to handle other environmental projects in Los Angeles. But so far only $700,000 of that money has been spent, prompting the EPA to put increasing pressure on the city to find uses for those funds, Helliker said.
Negotiators who agreed to the deadline extension also worked out time schedules that would force the city to commit the remaining $1.4 million by January, 1986, Helliker said. The funds would help pay for eight projects proposed by the city and approved by the EPA in May, he said.
The proposals include the development of a $350,000 plan for handling hazardous-waste emergencies, including fires and chemical spills; the deployment of a $132,000 mobile lab for analyzing hazardous wastes, and the creation of a $110,000 pilot program for collecting hazardous wastes from homes, Helliker said.
The city would undertake a $200,000 study to find uses for the ash produced by the burning of sludge at Hyperion, possibly as an additive to highway pavement or building materials, as well as a $190,000 study to identify and filter common sewage viruses from waters at the Tillman treatment plant in the San Fernando Valley. Remaining money would help fund a program to collect recyclable materials, to launch a pilot program to use clean-burning methanol on public buses and to use treated sewage water for irrigation, Helliker said.
The time schedule for committing those funds also must be approved by the court, he said.