Charging that the city of Los Angeles has allowed its aging and troubled sewage system to reach "the edge of collapse," the county Board of Supervisors last week asked the state to conduct public hearings on several sewage spills this year into Santa Monica Bay.
Led by Supervisor Pete Schabarum, a longtime critic of the way Los Angeles has handled its sewage problems, the board voted 3 to 2 to ask the Regional Water Quality Control Board to hold hearings on every raw sewage spill into the bay during the past year. Supervisors Edmund Edelman and Kenneth Hahn voted against the measure.
The board also asked for an investigation of two recent incidents in which the city diverted treated sewage--normally discharged five miles offshore--into a pipe that empties only one mile offshore.
Schabarum, a Republican, placed the lion's share of the blame for the problems on Mayor Tom Bradley, the Democratic nominee in the gubernatorial race.
"Tom Bradley has failed to manage the most basic of public necessities," Schabarum said. "The mechanical failures that caused these sewage dumpings resulted from the complete neglect on the part of the City Council and the mayor of Los Angeles."
Both Edelman and Hahn, who are Democrats, said the criticism of Bradley was unfair.
City and state officials immediately questioned the need for public hearings, saying the city is moving forward on efforts to correct the sewage overflow problems, under orders from the state water board.
"I guess I don't know what more we should do or could do," said Robert Ghirelli, executive director of the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Ghirelli said state water officials have investigated each of a handful of spills this spring, are aware of how they occurred, and are awaiting the city's completion of several projects ordered by his agency that are expected to correct the problems.
Del Biagi, director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation, said he was confused by the county's demand for an investigation into the recent incidents, in which the city diverted secondary treated sewage to a one-mile-long discharge pipe off Santa Monica.
The sewage was diverted because the giant pumps that normally push it out a five-mile-long outfall pipe failed to operate twice last week, he said.
"I have no idea why the county is asking for this (hearing)," Biagi said. "It was a reportable incident, but hardly a violation. This was secondary treated sewage, and it was fully chlorinated before it hit the ocean."
Unlike the diversions of treated sewage, most of the city's sewage spills, including some this spring and nearly two dozen since 1984, have been traced to a sewage overflow valve that empties into Ballona Creek in Culver City. Ballona Creek travels southwest and spills into the bay near Marina del Rey, carrying the raw sewage with it.
Last fall the water board fined the city $180,000 for illegal spills and ordered the city to construct a series of holding tanks near Ballona Creek to catch the overflows.
Biagi said about half of the 1-million-gallon holding tank system is in place, and the troublesome Ballona Creek overflow valve has been disconnected. The last time the overflow valve spewed sewage into the creek was this spring, Biagi said, when heavy rains caused expected surges in the sewer system.
The city came under heavy fire last year from state and federal pollution officials and environmentalists for numerous illegal raw sewage spills during "dry spells" when rainwater runoff was not a factor.
State, county and city officials have blamed the overflows on the city's aging, over-capacity sewer system, which has not kept pace with increased usage by residents and industry.
Biagi pointed out that no "dry spell" overflows have occurred since Sept. 21, when 95,000 gallons of raw waste were dumped into the creek and bay.
"Why Supervisor Schabarum did this, I don't know," he said. "Makes for interesting news, I guess."
But Schabarum said that with summer just around the corner, he is concerned that more sewage spills or diversion of treated sewage near the coast could destroy the recreational value of the beaches, which are used by 8 million county residents a year.
"If we let the dollar value of fines serve as a benchmark for pollution, Mayor Bradley and the Los Angeles City Council rank among the largest polluters in the state," he said.
However, federal and state officials generally attribute the local coastal pollution to the city's and the county's longtime practice of pumping partially treated sewage through pipes several miles offshore.
The city and county, which pump a total of 700 million gallons of partially treated sewage offshore each day, are both violating federal pollution standards and face federal requirements to fully treat sewage before it goes into the bay.