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Pitch Touts the Joys of Treated Sewage Water : Recycling: Oil company representatives are told of potential savings if used in refinery cooling towers.

August 25, 1994|JAMES BENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Adan Ortega Jr. is trying to sell millions of gallons of treated sewage water, and half a dozen oil company engineers from throughout the South Bay have gathered at a noisy El Segundo construction site to hear the sales pitch.

First the water will be treated at a sewage plant across town, he explains. Then it will be pumped to the water recycling plant under construction.

"They disinfect it, we'll purify it," Ortega bellows over clanking hammers, motoring tractors and buzzing drills where the country's largest water recycling plant is scheduled to open in October, 1995.

It's not the most glamorous sales job, but Ortega, wearing an Italian-style suit, appears comfortable as he walks around the dusty site trying to persuade engineers from Arco, Mobil and Unocal that their companies should stop buying tap water and switch to recycled sewage water to pump through refinery cooling towers.

The oil company representatives listen carefully as Ortega, public affairs manager for West Basin Municipal Water District, and a couple of the district's engineers explain how the $200-million water recycling facility will treat enough sewage water each year to fill the Los Angeles Coliseum 30 times.

Oil company officials are concerned the water will not be as clean as tap water. Phosphates and ammonia found in the recycled water could corrode expensive machinery in oil refineries, which would require costly repairs, they say.

"It's a new product, and with a new product you're always going to have difficult questions to answer," said Ortega, 31, who also helped Washington apple growers market their fruit after the Alar scare and California farmers sell grapes during a recent boycott.

But Ortega insists that recycled water's benefits make it an easy sell.

Over the past year, he and a dozen other West Basin officials have sold about 5% of the water that will be pumped out of the plant in a year. Among the industries he targets are oil refineries, fabric dyers and cement mixers. About 40% of the recycled water will be used to irrigate parks, schoolyards and cemeteries, he says.

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When the recycling plant opens, waste water from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in El Segundo will be pumped into the recycling facility at Sepulveda Boulevard and Hughes Way, where it will flow through a series of chambers for treatment.

Then the water will be pumped under South Bay streets to golf courses, parks and industries throughout the area. Officials estimate that 25% of the waste water now pumped from the sewage plant into the ocean will be diverted to the recycling facility.

That's where Ortega's sales pitch begins.

Touting the plant's benefits to the environment, Ortega warns that Southern California's reliance on imported water is precarious, especially during drought years. He says the plant's success could eventually "drought-proof" the South Bay by freeing up millions of gallons of imported water for other uses.

In addition, he tries to sell industry officials on the economic benefits to buying recycled water.

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The water costs roughly 30% less than potable water. For companies like Chevron Oil Co., which has a large refinery in El Segundo that uses an estimated 60% of the city's water, such savings can add up quickly.

Chevron officials say the refinery plans to use some of the recycled water at its El Segundo plant but has yet to decide how much.

Officials at Mobil, Arco and Unocal are also considering whether their companies should purchase the recycled water, which has never been used in refinery cooling towers, they say.

"This is going to be paving new ground," said Ernie P. Hamann an Arco engineer who has studied the issue for more than a year. "That's why all of us are approaching it cautiously."

The company is considering purchasing about 15% of the water used in its Carson refinery from the recycling plant, Hamann says.

To ease the concerns of oil company engineers, West Basin officials plan to construct a $9-million facility to remove ammonia and phosphates from the recycled water. As a result, the water will require fewer chemical treatments once it reaches the refineries.

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