CERRITOS — Veteran sewage plant worker Jim North usually does not notice the smell, but even his acclimated nose noticed something very foul on June 14 at Los Coyotes Water Reclamation Plant in Cerritos.
"Right away, we started smelling this odor coming in: a garlicky, onion-type smell, a little of skunk, a mixture of all three together," said North, who is construction maintenance supervisor at Los Coyotes and has worked for the county sewage system for 23 years.
Reaction was swift: North's eyes started burning. He got a headache. He felt nauseated. He could not draw a full breath.
North and six other workers were hospitalized later that day. A doctor looked at his raw throat and told him he had to quit smoking.
"I don't smoke at all," North said.
Tests disclosed that the seven workers had higher-than-normal blood pressure and elevated pulse rates. To purge their systems, doctors insisted that the men breathe pure oxygen for two hours. They stayed home recovering for up to two weeks.
The symptoms were traced to the release of water contaminated with foul-smelling organic sulfides, known as mercaptans, from the Golden West Refinery in Santa Fe Springs, according to Robert Miele, head of the technical services department of the County Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.
Miele said the release is the worst of its type.
"We have had problems with (Golden West) in the past," Miele said. "But this is the first time we sent seven people to the hospital." A similar incident sickened sewage plant employees in December.
In the aftermath of the June incident, sewage officials briefly suspended Golden West's discharge of waste water, a move that would have shut down the refinery if prolonged, and sought a longer-term solution in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Under a court order now in effect, the refinery must keep its dirty water in tanks on refinery property until tests show that the mercaptan level is below a strict standard. And, Miele promises, this is just the beginning.
"As increasingly stringent standards are placed on waste material . . . we are going to crack down on refineries. Refineries are going to have to spend more money on waste-water treatment."
The Golden West refinery is a 45,000-barrel-a-day facility that normally discharges about half a million gallons of waste water a day into the sewer system. It is required to hold mercaptan contaminants, an unwanted byproduct of the refining process, to under 1 part per million.
By contrast, standard for most other refineries in the area is 2 p.p.m. since their discharges are less likely to cause a health hazard because they are more diluted at the larger sewage plant in Carson where they are pumped.
Barbara Miles, a lawyer for Golden West, called the mercaptan release unfortunate and said the refinery had installed safeguards that will prevent a similar occurrence.
Golden West normally treats waste water tainted with mercaptans with an oxidizing agent such as hydrogen peroxide or chlorine dioxide to change the mercaptans to less-reactive sulfates, according to John Miller, Golden West vice president of refining.
Treated water is pumped into the county sewer system and flows into the Los Coyotes plant, which removes solids and sends the cleansed water to the Ironwood 9 Golf Course, farms and parks for irrigation, and to the San Gabriel River.
The incident in December, according to Miele and North, first aroused concern about Golden West's treatment process. North was on duty then but thought at the time that he had caught the flu.
"I got it worse than anyone," he said. "I went home. That night I couldn't hold anything down. I threw up. I had really terrible headaches in the temple area. I had no sleep at all." He went to work the next day, got sick to his stomach again and had to go home.
"Some of our operators got ill then. No one went to the hospital," Miele said. "At that time, we really got on (Golden West) strongly. We made them revise their operating procedures."
Under the procedures adopted by Golden West after December, water samples were tested hourly. Water with more than 1 p.p.m. was to be diverted to a holding tank until the level dropped.
"That seemed to work reasonably well," Miele said. That is, until June 14.
Miele said that incident exposed two flaws in Golden West's system.
"They would take a sample and go to the lab and analyze it. It would take 45 minutes to analyze it. All they would know was the water sent down was bad for an hour," Miele said.
County health inspectors learned of another problem when they arrived at Golden West and tested water samples--which must be stored for 24 hours--from the early hours of June 14.
"We found that the level (of mercaptans) was 1.5 p.p.m. None of their lab results showed it to be greater than 1 p.p.m. That's a problem. That's a discrepancy," he said.
"We told them to stop discharging on the day it happened. We said, 'Don't start discharging again until you are absolutely sure the mercaptan level is below 1 p.p.m.' And they did. Then they began to put it back in the sewer about 1 a.m., 2 a.m. on the morning of June 15.
"But as we began to look at the facts, we realized that what they had was not a foolproof system and we suspended their permit until they could get a system that is. We have the right to suspend the permit where there is a threat to public health and safety. There were seven people in the hospital. They contended they had nothing to do with that."
Golden West is now permitted to discharge under a temporary restraining order that requires it to store water until testing by an independent laboratory establishes that mercaptan levels are below 1 p.p.m.