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Monitoring the Effluent Society Is His Business

August 20, 1987|VAN GORDON SAUTER | Van Gordon Sauter is a print and broadcast journalist who lives in Los Angeles

It is a fetid, subterranean tidal wave, 380 million gallons of unspeakable horror, surging daily beneath our feet through 6,500 miles of pipe pointed irrevocably toward the beach.

The surfers and sun lovers and volleyball fanatics frolic along Santa Monica Bay, blithely assuming that someone, somewhere, is manning the dike that holds this cascading Chernobyl of pestilence away from the good life at the water's edge.

Little do they know that the tall, lean man in the wet suit, out there on weekends riding the waves on his gray and pink boogie board, is their salvation.

With the ease of Clark Kent, this mild-mannered surfer named Don Smith sheds his wet suit during the week to assume the role of social benefactor, master of the Hyperion Treatment Plant, the sprawling facility on the beach just south of the airport that with fences and guards and fields of gurgling water resembles an ominous germ-warfare factory operated by the villain in a James Bond movie.

This is where the City of Los Angeles treats those 380 million gallons of waste water contributed daily by the residents of this city and several smaller communities. After being treated, it is shot down a long pipe and released several miles out in the bay.

How much is 380 million gallons?

"Let me get my computer," says Smith, whose tieless, relaxed demeanor is appropriate to a hard core surfer. His nimble fingers dance across the computer pad. "Let's see, that would cover between 1,200 and 1,300 acres in one foot of water.

"The water we deal with," he adds "is from showers and sinks and toilets and industry. Whatever comes down the pipe, we take. And there is no stopping it. When something goes wrong here, it's scary."

And Hyperion has been scary.

It was obvious a few years ago that there were human and technical problems at Hyperion. Some very, very bad water was making its way through the treatment plant. Few things horrify the public more than reports about foul water being dumped by the city into the bay. Beach lovers threaten sedition. Environmentalists rally their lawyers. Regulatory agencies impose fines. The mayor is inundated by outrage. And assorted elected officials, trailed by clusters of television crews, march onto the beach to invoke the wrath of the federal or state government.

Enter Don Smith. In an unorthodox move 18 months ago, the city gave him operating responsibility for Hyperion. He is a person from outside the system, a vice president of James Montgomery Consulting Engineers, Inc., specialists in the collecting, treatment and disposal of waste water.

In that capacity, he had written a report critical of the plant. The city, struggling to fix the plant and update its overall waste water system, gave him the job of correcting the flaws he wrote about.

Snappy One-Liners

In a city where bizarre topics routinely make their way into casual cocktail conversation, some snappy one-liners about the latest trends in waste water disposal will disperse even the most lethargic or blase crowd.

"Our society and culture have certain impressions of waste water treatment," Smith says. "People don't want to deal with it. I see it when dealing socially with people.

"People ask me, 'What do you do for a living?' "

"I say, 'I'm in waste water treatment.' You can see their eyebrows go up."

Indeed, there were reports that a significant problem at Hyperion was low morale among the 700 workers. One can imagine a Hyperion employee strolling into an El Segundo bar after work and hearing himself placed in yet another version of the joke about the circus employee who clung to his job cleaning up after the elephants because he didn't want to quit show business.

"Good morale is very important to us here," Smith says. "Part of my task is to convince the people here at the plant of the importance of their jobs to the environment. If you don't do your jobs correctly, I say, the consequences to the environment are significant.

"I think the people working here want to put out the best water we can. We still have problems, but the impact of our discharge on the water in the bay has been greatly reduced over the last two years."

Closer to the Action

Smith puts in 11 and 12 hour days at that task. He and his wife, a hand weaver whose wall hangings and throws are sold in Beverly Hills and on Madison Avenue, have moved from Pasadena to Malibu to be close to the plant.

And Don Smith uses the ocean that he can see out the windows of his office.

"I am very sensitive to the ocean. There is nothing I'd rather be doing than swimming. It clears your mind. But you must have a respect for it. It is very powerful."

The tension between millions of people and their environment will never be fully resolved, but it could be reassuring that the man who runs the waste-water treatment facility has enough confidence in his work to be out there on weekends, paddling the pink and gray boogie board through the water of Santa Monica Bay.

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