At least 3,000 gallons of raw sewage poured into Ballona Creek from the Los Angeles sewer system a little more than a week ago, just one day after Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) complained that sewage in the creek presents a public health threat.
Two county health officials discovered the sewage overflowing into the creek near Jackson Avenue in Culver City when they arrived to take water samples the morning of July 12.
The health officials called the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation to report the spill, according to Harry Sizemore, assistant director of the bureau. He said a gauge that measures sewage level in the gate failed to indicate an overflow.
By the time a crew from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in El Segundo arrived, Sizemore said, there were no signs that a spill had occurred.
The health officials said that the sewage was untreated and Hayden said that the sanitation bureau did not report the spill to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. A state operating permit requires that chlorine be shoveled on top of sewage released into the creek and that the spills be reported to the water quality board.
Hayden said the the unreported spill raises the possibility that far more sewage has entered the creek during the past 10 months than the 1.2 million gallons reported to the water quality board.
Hayden has sent a letter to Robert Ghirelli, director of the board, demanding an investigation and immediate posting of signs warning the public of the potential health danger from the creek's waters.
"We are going to look at this particular instance and see if enforcement is necessary," Ghirelli said. "If it did happen, there is no excuse that we weren't notified." The water quality board can fine the city of Los Angeles up to $20 a gallon and $10,000 a day for sewage spills.
"This (latest) spill may indicate there have been others that were not reported," Ghirelli said, agreeing with Hayden. "If that is the case, we will have to do a better follow-up to make sure that they are reported."
Sewage has been allowed to spill into Ballona Creek through the Jackson overflow gate, an emergency release point on the sewer line that brings waste from the San Fernando Valley and the Westside to the Hyperion plant. When the line becomes overloaded, sewage spills into the creek, which empties into the ocean five miles to the west.
The overflow gate has been part of the sewer system for more than 30 years, but it was brought to Hayden's attention by residents' complaints. Records show that the gate has often been used in dry weather and not just during floods, for which it was designed.
Sizemore said that checks will be conducted to assure that the water-level gauge is functioning correctly. As an added precaution, workers will be sent to the gate when the water level reaches 7.6 feet, instead of the previous warning mark of 8.1 feet, he said.
Sanitation officials said last week that they have plans to divert sewage to another line or a treatment plant upstream so that dumping into the creek can be eliminated.
Ghirelli said the board might consider posting health warning signs along the creek. Exposure to raw sewage can cause a variety of gastrointestinal and other health problems. Health officials will know more about potential health dangers from the creek when tests for organic and chemical contamination are completed this week.