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City Officials Plead Sewage Case on the Enemy's Turf

April 07, 1986|KEVIN RODERICK | Times Staff Writer

With warm weather back, the beaches from Palos Verdes to Malibu will fill up soon with sunbathers unconcerned with the turmoil caused by sewage in the offshore waters.

But in a funky Venice artists' hangout, six blocks from the polluted waters of Santa Monica Bay, the appearance of three top city officials last week demonstrated how troublesome it remains for Los Angeles to pump sewage into the ocean.

Together the three city executives make $250,000 in annual salaries and have big staffs at their call downtown. One of the three, Board of Public Works President Maureen Kindel, is a key adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. But here they were, out on a dark night, humbly pleading the city's case on enemy turf.

1978 Dumping Deadline

Facing them on folding chairs were 30 clean-water activists angered that the city has flouted a 1978 deadline to stop dumping sewage sludge in the ocean. The city anticipates compliance later this year but the group, Heal the Bay, regards the sewage as a main reason that some fish caught in Santa Monica Bay carry dangerous chemicals and suffer from physical defects.

Heal The Bay, an alliance of conservation groups, is important to the city because it is the loudest voice calling for an action that Bradley wants to avoid--a ban by the state on new construction in order to stop further strain on the city's 6,000-mile sewer system.

The meeting marked the first time that officials at Kindel's level in City Hall--who used to argue that sewage was "good for fish"--appeared contrite about the problems. She conceded, as The Times reported last January, that the city had delayed needed work on the sewers in a gamble that it would ultimately receive waivers from federal law or, lacking that, receive sufficient federal grants to pay for the work without raising local taxes.

"We are indeed part of the problem," she said in conciliatory remarks.

Held Off Repairs

The Times' articles detailed how the city held off making sewer repairs and attempted to fight off federal efforts to halt dumping in Santa Monica Bay until finally agreeing last year to comply with the Clean Water Act. The articles also listed studies showing that some fish in the bay have high levels of toxic DDT and PCBs, apparently because of runoff through the separate Los Angeles County sewer system, and show other ill effects of man-made pollution.

The threat of a moratorium on new construction alarms city officials for it would shut down the building industry, at least temporarily, and could interfere with programs the mayor considers important such as the redevelopment of downtown and the building of a new trash-burning incinerator in the South-Central Los Angeles area. It would also anger real estate developers who form a large part of Bradley's political fund-raising base.

Clean Up Sewage

But state regulators are looking for a way to force the city to clean up its sewage practices, and they can order a building moratorium to ease pressure on the decaying and outdated sewer system.

The decision will be made sometime this summer by the state Regional Water Quality Board. The board and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are negotiating with the city now on a schedule for about $2 billion in necessary work on the sewage system, and the moratorium is likely only if the regulators are not satisfied with the city's progress.

"I personally have not come to any conclusions about it," said Robert P. Ghirelli, director of the state board's staff in Los Angeles. "At this point all options are open to us."

At least some board members, who are appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, are open to using a construction ban as a club to force the city's compliance. They have already fined the city $180,000 for sewage violations and could also levy more fines.

The board signaled last November that it had finally lost patience with the city by denying Los Angeles an exemption from the federal law requiring secondary treatment of sewage water pumped in the ocean.

Primary Treatment Only

Currently, most of the waste received at the city's Hyperion sewage treatment plant, on the coastal dunes south of Los Angeles International Airport, receives only primary treatment. The solid material in the sewage (which is mostly water) is pulled out and concentrated into sludge. Then the sludge and the water are pumped separately out pipelines into submarine canyons at least five miles offshore.

Secondary processing removes even more organic solids and bacteria before the sewage water is pumped into the ocean.

Bradley and the City Council had sought the waiver from the secondary treatment rule for 10 years to avoid costly remodeling of the 35-year-old Hyperion plant. The official deadline for complying passed in 1978.

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