While Los Angeles-area beaches remained closed for a fifth day, Mayor Tom Bradley's chief deputy protested Thursday that city sewage leaks have been wrongly blamed for bacteria that led health officials to declare Santa Monica Bay unsafe for swimmers.
Deputy Mayor Mike Gage, unleashing an attack on Los Angeles County officials in Bradley's absence, produced evidence that the bacteria could only have come from contaminated storm drain runoff carried into the bay by recent rains.
"We are in concurrence with the county's efforts to close the beaches," Gage said. "But what is clear is that sewage is not the major problem here. The storm drains are the major problem. We think that people deserve to know the truth."
Nonetheless, the county Department of Health Services Thursday defended its decision to cite Los Angeles city sewage as a reason for posting warning signs on all beaches from Malibu to Long Beach and announced that the warnings will remain in effect until at least noon today.
Jack Petralia, acting director of environmental health for the county, agreed that the threat from contaminated storm drain runoff is well known. The runoff, especially in the first storm after a long dry period, usually is heavily contaminated with oil residue, animal droppings and other pollutants.
But Petralia said that existing data on storm runoff would not justify an order warning away swimmers, and that it was the large overflow of sewage that led the county to post beach warnings.
The beaches were first posted Oct. 23 after heavy rainfall caused 2.7 million gallons of chlorinated sewage to overflow into Ballona Creek, the main source of storm runoff into Santa Monica Bay. Signs warning of a health hazard were posted again last weekend when 4.1 million gallons of chlorinated sewage overflowed into Ballona Creek over a seven-hour period because of another storm. The signs have remained up since.
Petralia said Thursday night that the decision to post has been justified by new test results showing a "very high" level of enterococcus bacteria in Santa Monica Bay. Sewage is "the most likely source" of enterococcus bacteria, Petralia said.
To support his case, Gage cited results of testing for a different bacteria, coliform, which scientists consider another, less reliable indicator of fecal contamination.
Samples of the chlorinated sewage that overflowed contained dramatically less coliform than the untreated storm runoff rushing down Ballona Creek to the ocean, according to Gage and city environmental engineers. A 100-milliliter sewage sample contained only 2,300 coliform bacteria, while an equal sample of Ballona Creek runoff found 170,000 of the bacteria, the city engineers said.
The city, which has been stung by criticism of its ongoing sewage troubles, contends that the chlorinated sewage was not only "cleaner" than the runoff, but it's impact on the bay was greatly diluted by the much heavier flow of runoff water. The city estimates that 1.3 billion gallons of runoff water flowed down Ballona Creek Saturday night.
Unlike other recent sewage spills that have plagued the Bradley administration, the overflows during rainstorms are anticipated under the federal permit that allows the city to continue putting some treated sewage into the bay until 1998.
The state Regional Water Quality Control Board, which monitors the city's permit for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, regards the overflows as essentially raw sewage. But it is screened and chlorinated and thus possibly more pure than most conventionally treated sewage discharged from the city's Hyperion treatment plant, said Winnie Deslate, an associate water quality engineer.
Flurry of Spills
State officials are more concerned by a flurry of raw sewage spills this year caused by power outages at pumping stations.
A major spill last June dumped 2.4 million gallons of raw sewage into the Venice canals. The incident was referred to the state attorney general, who investigated and filed a lawsuit against the city.
After the Venice spill, Bradley--who was on a trade mission in Southeast Asia Thursday--ordered a crash program to provide backup power sources at key pumping stations. But since Sept. 26, three new power failures have spilled 90,000 gallons of raw sewage onto Pacific Palisades streets and beaches.
The spills, which are under investigation by state authorities, might have been avoided if the backup generators were in place. The mayor's office released a statement Thursday saying the backup power would be available "by the end of next week."
Gage's comments Thursday came two days after the county Board of Supervisors voted to demand that Bradley take stronger steps to prevent future sewage spills. The supervisors also requested that the city repay the county for the cost of posting the beaches.
Gage complained that the county has steadfastly refused earlier demands by the city for warning signs to be posted after storms. Now that the county has decided to post, it is giving the public a mistaken impression, he said.
But Leonard Mushin, acting director of the county's environmental protection bureau, accused the city of trying to hide behind the storm.
"I think there's a game being played here to try to minimize the sewage contribution to the problem," Mushin said.
Meanwhile, the state auditor general has begun to look into complaints about poor operation and cost overruns at the city's Hyperion sewage plant. The audit was requested by state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles).
"We are in the preliminary phases of that audit," Kurt Sjoberg, chief deputy auditor general, said Thursday.