A vast stretch of beach, including all of Santa Monica Bay, was posted with health warnings Friday after heavy overnight rains washed 2.7 million gallons of virtually raw Los Angeles city sewage into the ocean near Marina del Rey.
Despite frequent sewage spills this year, Friday was the first time that signs warning of possible health threats to swimmers were posted on the whole stretch of beach from Long Beach to the Ventura County line.
The signs--which do not prohibit swimming--were expected to remain up until Tuesday at the urging of the county Department of Health Services.
The Friday morning spill was the largest from the aging, trouble-prone city sewer system since last summer and the second spill to occur during this week's storms.
Unlike past spills, which have most often followed power outages, city sanitation officials said that heavy rains Thursday night essentially flooded the main sewer lines carrying raw effluent--from as far away as downtown and the San Fernando Valley--to the city's large Hyperion Treatment Plant near El Segundo.
The rushing mix of effluent and rainwater swamped a million-gallon holding reservoir built recently several miles upstream to protect the Hyperion plant from flooding. But the reservoir overflowed and spilled the sewage into Ballona Creek, which empties into the ocean just south of Marina del Rey. Sanitation workers said the sewage washed out to sea.
Chlorine was added by sanitation workers to kill bacteria that could threaten public health. But the overflow did not undergo the usual cleansing treatment given to sewage when it reaches the Hyperion plant.
Sanitation officials said the heavy runoff of rainwater down Ballona Creek--the main natural stream draining the Westside of Los Angeles--had diluted the sewage so there would be no health danger to people.
Water to Be Tested
County health spokesman Steve Stewart said that bacterial tests on water collected in Santa Monica Bay would not be able to detect the sewage impact until after the weekend. Until then, the readings would simply pick up the high bacteria levels that occur after a major rainfall when the runoff from contaminated storm drains flows unchecked into the ocean.
Nonetheless, Stewart said, the warning signs were posted on beaches as a precaution because of "intense" public concern about sewage spills.
After earlier spills, some critics complained that the Health Department was slow to notify residents and beach users of possible dangers. Stewart said health officials decided this time to err on the side of caution. "We just feel it's more prudent to post," Stewart said.
Suit Against City
The Friday spill occurred just two days after state Atty. Gen. John K. Van De Kamp filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles that could hold officials responsible for $100 million in damages for earlier sewage spills.
Mayor Tom Bradley and the City Council are already under a federal court order to clean up the city's discharges of sewage into the bay. For several decades the city has disposed of its sewage in submarine canyons offshore from Los Angeles International Airport, but state officials and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have been trying to get the city to reduce the dumping for more than a decade.
Under a settlement reached in federal court last year, the city paid a $625,000 fine and agreed to stop dumping sludge--the blackish goo that is left when most water is removed from sewage--in the bay at the end of this year.
The sewage controversy has cost Bradley some political support among environmental groups and liberals, who blame the mayor for stalling and permitting growth to outstrip the sewer system's capacity.
Activists, in conjunction with state Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), have begun preparing to campaign for a citywide ballot measure to limit growth if the sewage troubles continue. They are trying to qualify the measure for the November, 1988, ballot.
Hayden said Friday that the latest spill could have been avoided if the city had agreed to requests that it build a much larger reservoir than the one that overflowed. "They didn't build a holding pond big enough to handle this much (rain)," Hayden said.
The reservoir was added after the city was fined $30,000 by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board for a 1985 spill that was also traced to rainfall flooding the sewers.
The spill Friday was reported to the state agency, which has levied a series of fines against the city for sewage spills in recent years.