Dorothy Green will never forget the summer day in 1985 that her brother phoned her with a troubling discovery.
Next to a popular bicycle trail, he had nearly stumbled across a drain carrying what appeared to be raw sewage into Ballona Creek. The fast-moving liquid was heading for Santa Monica Bay.
He told Green that, as he watched, the big drain suddenly brimmed with murky liquid, and a gust of wind spattered fine bits of foul-smelling material onto him.
If city officials could have picked a person to expose the strange occurrence, Dorothy Green might have been their last choice.
Green, one of the most vocal environmentalists in California, drove out to look for herself, then alerted state Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and several of the city's leading environmentalists.
"You could just see it," Green said. "The stench was undeniable. The city was already in trouble for its track record on the bay, so all hell broke loose."
The spill was one of seven such incidents in 1985 that took environmental agencies by surprise and shed light on the decay of the city's sewer system. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board fined the city $180,000, blaming the spills on outmoded pipes that had finally overflowed.
Since then, public pressure on the city to protect Santa Monica Bay--led by a core group of Westside clean-water advocates including Green, Hayden, marine biologist Rimmon C. Fay, the Sierra Club's Nancy Taylor and others--has never let up.
In recent months, the activists have carved out a role as watchdogs of the effort to reduce bay pollution. The centerpiece of the effort is a $3-billion sewage system renovation, the most expensive public works project in city history.
Acting as Bird Dogs
"We are going to bird-dog them every step of the way," Fay said.
On Feb. 19, U. S. Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson approved a settlement between the city and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to end the city's decade-long practice of dumping sludge--highly contaminated, concentrated sewage--in the bay, a violation of federal law.
By the end of next year,, the city must stop dumping sludge, and by the end of 1998, it must build a system at its Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant to extensively treat all of the 400 million to 500 million gallons of waste water it pours into the polluted bay each day.
However, Pregerson turned aside the activists' proposal for an independent monitor to police the city and dismissed their argument that the city be required to meet a much earlier deadline.
Nevertheless, Pregerson has given the activists status as friends of the court as the project unfolds, which means they can participate in the lawsuit settlement. As a result, they have easier access to city officials and records and are privy to some information even before the local media.
In a pointed illustration of that, the activists revealed last month that a fire had caused $360,000 in damage at Hyperion on Feb. 2. The fire hit a giant sludge-burner under construction. Work on the incinerator, which eventually will dispose of sewage solids now dumped in the bay, was set back by months, according to sanitation officials.
However, the city did not inform Pregerson or the activists about the fire until March 10, almost three weeks after the judge had accepted the city's plan for renovating the sewers.
"I feel so betrayed," said Ellen Stern Harris, an activist. "At the Feb. 19 signing of the agreement, the city showed us beautiful color slides of their work, the new construction, put on a real dog-and-pony show. But not one word about the fire."
Maureen Kindel, president of the city's Board of Public Works, said that because of tremendous time pressures and the often chaotic nature of their task, "information is just not getting out like it should."
"It was even difficult for the board to get information on what had caused the fire, what it meant and how long (the project) will be delayed," Kindel said. "We know our credibility with the public is terrible, and we are really working to overcome this very kind of thing."
City Engineer Bob Horii said he waited until engineers had determined the extent of the damage, which was limited to a piping system that was too hot to be inspected for nearly a week. He refused to comment on criticism from activists, saying only that he "has no problems with their involvement" as friends of the court.
However, a private engineer who is familiar with the project said city officials are "absolutely horrified of Tom Hayden, the Sierra Club and all the rest. To the city, it is a them-versus-us routine, not a cooperative effort."
The activists say they fear that the city's long history of foot-dragging will continue.
"I wish I had better news to tell, but we do not believe that the city has the situation under control, and we fear that it cannot straighten its own house," Fay said. "I fear things are going to get worse before they get better."