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Modest Steps Can Avoid Polluting the Beaches

November 13, 1987|ELLEN STERN HARRIS | Ellen Stern Harris is executive director of the Fund for the Environment and a former member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board

Yakety-yak, attack, attack, the best defense may be an offense. Especially when the city of Los Angeles can find someone else to blame for the longest, most extensive series of beach closings since World War II. This time, the city is hurling charges at the county and its storm drains.

Just a short time after another major sewage overflow (4.1 million gallons) into the Santa Monica Bay from the city's debilitated sewage system, Mayor Tom Bradley left for an extensive tour of the Far East. This trip followed his return from a tour of Africa, making his predecessor, "Traveling Sam" Yorty, look like a stay-at-home, hands-on manager.

After Bradley departed, his deputy, former Assemblyman Mike Gage, publicly denounced the county's separate storm-drain system as the culprit in the beach closings. The county Department of Health Services acknowledges the contribution of storm-drain runoff to the pollution of the bay, but rejects Gage's claim that "what is clear is that sewage is not the major problem here."

It's time for a pollution-free peace with honor. Until the city can dependably handle the sewage it's got, the City Council must declare a moratorium on new hookups to its woefully inadequate sewer system. This might upset developers who are major campaign contributors, thus it might inspire a needed speed-up in the city's schedule for replacing, remodeling and enlarging its sewage facilities. The year 2000 is too long to wait.

A consent decree signed by city, state and federal officials promises that the work will be completed by 1998. But the city has a history of repeatedly missing agreed-upon deadlines. That is why the city needs to prove that it can handle the present daily flow of sewage before adding to it. Meanwhile, building can proceed in parts of Southern California where sewage facilities have not exceeded capacity.

At the same time, portable standby generators must immediately be put in place at every critical pumping station throughout the system. This is to assure continuous power and minimize the frequency of sewage spilling out of the system without proper treatment. The city requires such gasoline-powered generators of cable companies operating under its jurisdiction; it should require no less for itself. Electrical outages are a fact of life and must be planned for; generators can be rented today, so there are no more excuses.

Next, the city should minimize the amount of storm water that flows into its sewage system. The storm-water overflow has contributed greatly to the malfunctioning of its sewage facilities. Manhole covers over sewage-carrying pipes must be retrofitted to seal out sheets of water pouring into and overloading the system.

Similarly, the joints in the sewers must be expeditiously sealed against infiltration of ground water in the same way pipes are kept watertight for carrying drinking water. Regular inspections must be carried out to locate illegal as well as deteriorated connections to the sewer system.

As for the county, it need not wait around for completion of the city's court-ordered storm-drain study. There's no mystery about how problems with the storm drain have increased in the past few years. It all began with the Board of Supervisors cutting the flood-control budget and contracting out the department's duties.

It's time to reinstate the county's once-comprehensive storm-drain maintenance and inspection program with sufficient county personnel to assure the continuous cleaning out of drains, with debris and residue hauled to landfills before the storms wash so much of it onto the beaches.

Also, proper street-cleaning procedures by the county and all 85 cities within its jurisdiction could substantially minimize the volume of debris entering the storm drains.

Prompt detection, analysis and prosecution of polluters who illegally use storm drains is essential. This means that the county must also re-establish its own (now-dismantled) testing labs rather than contracting with a private company whose facilities are available only from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Toxics dumpers already know about this and arrange their weekend, evening and holiday schedules accordingly.

In addition, the county must promptly arrange to capture and treat, at a minimum, the dry-weather noxious flows from its storm drains which have been allowed to pour onto the beaches.

Until state public health officials conduct extensive epidemiological studies on the possible health implications of swimming in Santa Monica Bay, spokespersons for the city and county should refrain from declaring it safe to swim there. Such declarations have been made just days after many of the city's many sewage spills.

The timely implementation of these improvements could be the beginning of a long-awaited city-county truce. We'll hold a beach party to celebrate the reparations as soon as the City Council, the Board of Supervisors and the state Department of Health Services say when.

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