Three unreported sewage spills that may have resulted in the dumping of nearly 17 million gallons of partly treated effluent into Santa Monica Bay led Wednesday to the suspension of two supervisors at the city's Hyperion Treatment Plant.
City officials said the two unnamed supervisors--suspended indefinitely with pay--may be just the first of many plant employees facing either disciplinary or criminal proceedings for not reporting the spills. Officials of the city attorney's office, however, voiced some doubt that any criminal statutes were violated.
Saying she was "outraged and embarrassed," Board of Public Works President Maureen Kindel said the apparent reporting failure amounted to a "cover up." The public works board ordered a full internal investigation of the three spills and of an apparently unrelated June 6 spill of 2.4 million gallons of sewage at the Venice Pumping Plant. That spill was first reported as being only 300,000 gallons.
'Confused and Afraid'
Kindel, speaking at a City Hall news conference, said the spills came to light after a "confused and afraid" plant employee on Monday spirited a number of data charts out of the trouble-plagued Hyperion facility in El Segundo and turned them over to Mayor Tom Bradley's office.
The three unreported Hyperion spills were triggered by power outages lasting up to four hours each. The sewage, partially treated to remove fecal and most other solids, is normally pumped through a large pipe to a point five miles at sea in order to greatly reduce its impact on coastal beaches. When a power failure occurs, the normal pumping process is interrupted, causing some of the partially treated sewage to spill over into a shorter overflow pipe only one mile offshore.
When the power fails and a spill close to shore is likely, plant employees are required to introduce bacteria-killing chlorine into the effluent to reduce possible health risks to bathers and boaters. In the case of the recent spills, most of the semi-treated sewage was not chlorinated, officials said.
Levels Considered 'Normal'
County health officials said Wednesday that they have not yet determined if the three spills added to the bacteria levels measured close to shore, but added that as of last Thursday, the levels were considered "normal."
City officials were unable to determine precisely how much unchlorinated sewage spilled. Bureau of Sanitation Director Del Biagi said spill estimates range from 3 million to 9 million gallons on May 25; 9 million gallons on June 5, of which about 1.5 million gallons apparently was chlorinated, and 30,000 gallons on June 6.
The June 5 total announced Wednesday was six times higher than originally reported to state officials.
Kindel and sanitation officials expressed puzzlement over why any employee would fail to report such a power failure-related spill because they are quite common; at least eight have occurred since Jan. 1. Biagi said $14 million worth of improvements to prevent future spills of this type will be in place by 1991, but until then, "everyone recognizes that power surges and dips occur and everyone recognizes that the plant goes off line.
"There is nothing of benefit to any of our employees at our plant to not follow standard practice," Biagi said. "It is completely set as far as what we are supposed to do, to whom we are supposed to report and so on."
After the news conference, Biagi differed with Kindel over her characterization of the situation as a "cover up."
"I don't think that that is necessarily a proper word," Biagi said. "To me, what our employees did was fail to follow standard operating practice in dealing with a power outage at the plant."
Biagi said the internal investigation has so far determined the two plant supervisors are "prime players" in the reporting failure. "We believe there may have been others, but at this time we have not carried the investigation far enough to identify those people or tell you exactly how many," Biagi said.
Donald Smith, a private consultant hired to manage the Hyperion plant, said the two suspended supervisors have denied any culpability for the unreported spills.
"They have admitted the outages have occurred," Smith said. "They have not admitted the (sewage diversions) occurred." He added that a diversion to the shorter overflow pipe does not always follow a power outage.
Kindel said, however, she is convinced that the two supervisors are responsible for the spills not being reported.
"In one instance, we have a witness that he informed his shift superintendent that there was an outage and he chose to ignore it," Kindel said. "In the other instances, there were no witnesses, but there is proof that (they) occurred."
Fall Under Regulations
Proof or not, a representative of the city attorney's office expressed doubt that any criminal statutes were violated since the reporting procedures fall under regulations set by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
"At first blush, it does not appear that there is a section of the Penal Code that these matters would rise to," said Ted Goldstein, a spokesman for City Atty. James Hahn. He added, however, that once sanitation officials complete their investigation there may be allegations of criminal negligence leveled against the Hyperion employees.
Times staff writer Kevin Roderick contributed to this story.