A one-mile stretch of strand in Seal Beach was expected to remain off limits to swimmers and bathers today after a million gallons of raw sewage flowed from a broken pipeline in Fullerton, down two creeks and into the ocean this weekend.
A second spill of about 1,500 gallons occurred at midday Tuesday near the first pipeline break, as a crew from the County Sanitation Districts of Orange County tried to clear debris from the 12-inch sewer pipe, agency spokeswoman Corinne Clawson said.
Robert E. Merryman, the county's environmental health director, said a bacteriological analysis of water contamination will not be available until today. He called the Saturday morning spill one of the largest in Orange County in the last six years.
However, Merryman said the sewage spill probably did not constitute a serious threat to public health, in part because heavy rains diluted the effluent as it flowed from an oil field in Fullerton down two creeks, into the San Gabriel River and into the ocean.
Also, sanitation crews dumped vats of chlorine into the sewage at the site of the punctured pipe, Clawson said.
Merryman said Seal Beach was closed Saturday to prevent surfers and swimmers from contracting hepatitis or other infections. He said the spill would not pose a threat to marine life, although clams and mussels from the area should not be eaten.
Because tides are dispersing the sewage, Merryman predicted that "the beaches will be open by the weekend."
The area closed stretches from the mouth of the San Gabriel River southeast past the Sea Beach Pier to the jetty separating Seal Beach from Anaheim Bay. The bay itself was not contaminated, Clawson said.
Blake Anderson, technical engineer for the sanitation agency, said a preliminary investigation indicated that an oil crew working in the field, which is owned by Unocal of Los Angeles, may have punctured the sewer line. The broken pipe, which serves homes in Brea and part of Fullerton, is located in an oil field south of Bastanchury Road between Brea and State College boulevards.
"We speculate right now that an oil field crew had been doing some oil well repairs and had driven (a post used to anchor a repair rig) into the ground and punctured the top of our sewer line," Anderson said.
Crew members might not have known they had punctured the line, instead perhaps mistaking the pipe "for just a large rock," he said.
But Unocal spokesman Art Bentley said his officials knew nothing about a punctured pipe and had not done any work in that oil field recently. "We're not aware of anything in our field," he added.
However, according to Anderson, workmen from the Unocal site found the punctured pipe Friday afternoon and alerted a sanitation crew working nearby.
Anderson said the punctured pipe was not leaking sewage at that time, and so his crew decided to fix it the next morning. But on Saturday morning, as 20 men worked in mud and heavy rain to excavate the pipeline, a cave-in occurred, clogging the line and spilling untreated sewage into the earby creek.
At that point, Anderson said, "we no longer had control of the situation."
From about 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturday, about a million gallons of raw sewage spilled from the line into Fullerton Creek, then down Coyote Creek and into the San Gabriel River, Merryman said. He estimated that the effluent began reaching the ocean by Saturday night.
Sanitation workers built an alternate sewer line about 100 feet from the punctured pipe and had diverted the flow to it by 2 p.m. Saturday, Anderson said, adding that the punctured line was repaired by 7 p.m.
Sanitation agency officials notified county health workers of the spill at about 4:45 p.m. Saturday, after they had the situation under control, Merryman said. County health officials then closed the beaches at about 5 p.m. Saturday, before any sewage could reach the ocean.
The smaller spill occurred Tuesday as a sanitation crew tried to clear debris near the site of the break, Clawson said. That spill was capped in two hours.
Daniel P. Joseph, Seal Beach assistant city manager, said the city was not overly concerned about the spill. "In this city, at this time of year, it's not as big a factor as it would be if it were in the middle of the summer. There's only a few surfers and die-hard swimmers out there."
Times Staff Writer Nancy Wride contributed to this story.