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Get Moving on Santa Monica Bay : Hyperion Work Relies on Untested Plan, in Slow Motion

January 22, 1987|ELLEN STERN HARRIS | Ellen Stern Harris, executive director of the Fund for the Environment, has served as a vice chairwoman of the State Coastal Commission, as a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

The City of Los Angeles is in the process of spending more than $3 billion to help clean up Santa Monica Bay, and it cannot promise that the plans will work.

City officials say that they will get the job done by 1998, but they cannot explain how they arrived at that date rather than a much earlier one, or how much sooner construction could be completed if double work shifts were ordered.,

Most of the work is going on at the city's Hyperion Sewage Plant, where a $225-million pilot project, the Hyperion Energy Recovery System (HERS), is being tested. Its success is riding on a method for dehydrating sludge known as the Carver-Greenfield process, which has never been applied on such an enormous scale at a municipal sewage plant. No one knows if either Carver-Greenfield or HERS will ever work as intended. The city already has approved $43 million in changes as part of a very steep learning curve.

The recovery system is supposed to turn the dehydrated sludge into ash and energy after placing it in huge combustion furnaces. The idea is to reduce substantially the volume of sludge trucked to landfills and to recover energy to help defray the costs.

But what if it doesn't work? "We'll have a string of trucks going forever," a bureaucrat told me. "You have to anticipate that Carver-Greenfield will work or you can't do any planning," he added.

Why is the city investing so much in an untried system? As a result of a 1977 Justice Department suit on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, a consent decree was obtained in 1980 in which the City of Los Angeles agreed to stop pouring 4.24 million gallons of sludge a day into the bay by Feb. 15, 1986, but it missed that deadline and several others.

It was the series of broken promises and growing public concern that last spring compelled the Fund for the Environment, the Los Angeles County Lifeguards Assn., Marina del Rey Anglers and Cora Edilson, co-owner of Harry's Bait & Tackle Shop, to ask U.S. Circuit Court Judge Harry Pregerson if we could become participants in the case. Represented by pro bono attorneys Ralph Nutter and Mel Nutter (no relation), we were admitted to the case as friends of the court at the end of May.

A higher-than-expected cancer rate among lifeguards means that their association worries about increased health risks to members. The anglers aren't enjoying their catch as much as they used to, and Edilson has seen a 50% drop in business, which she attributes to people's concern about catching more than fish from the bay.

Recently the court allowed this group and others to comment on a proposed amended consent decree to which the city, state and federal governments have agreed. It says that the city doesn't have to fulfill its obligations to a bay cleanup until 1998. We protested that no verifiable basis for such a distant deadline has been provided. In fact, two former employees of Hyperion say that the cleanup can be completed at least three to five years earlier. Even three summers sooner of relatively carefree swimming and fishing at Southern California's most popular recreational area are worth fighting for.

We also want a court-appointed, independent monitor to keep tabs on the progress at Hyperion so that we won't be surprised by any more missed deadlines. The government representatives are adamantly opposed to being monitored, claiming that they are the public watchdogs. If that's the case, how did they let the bay become such a mess? Is there something that they would rather not have us or the court find out?

If they're confident that they're going to get the sludge out of the bay for good, then why do they balk when we ask them to remove temptation by removing the sludge outfall pipeline from the ocean?

But let's say that HERS finally works as intended, the sludge stays out of the ocean and Hyperion discharges only what is known as secondary or more fully treated effluent into the bay. Unfortunately, we would be back at square one, because the city continues to allow an unlimited number of hookups to its sewer system when it should be curtailing them. That's the least that should be done until adequate provisions are made to fully treat the additional volume that will soon put Hyperion over capacity once again.

An even better approach would be to determine the carrying capacity of the Los Angeles Basin, consistent with an acceptable quality of life, and not build sewage-treatment facilities or other accommodations for a population in excess of that. In any case the city should be preparing to eventually dismantle Hyperion and decentralize sewage-treatment plants throughout the region.

In that way we could restore one of the best beaches in Southern California to full recreational and scenic enjoyment--Playa del Rey, where Hyperion now occupies 144 acres.

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