John Crosse steered his city-owned car along a narrow, twisting ridge in Playa del Rey.
To the east the land leveled off, affording a view of a neat, wood-fenced El Segundo neighborhood. But in the opposite direction, just inches away from the wheels of Crosse's car, the bluff dropped several hundred feet to a sprawling and not-so-bucolic construction site: the Hyperion Treatment Plant.
"The whole plant's a war zone," said Crosse, Hyperion's plant manager, referring to the massive excavations and steel-rod skeletons that are gradually changing both the appearance and the environmental impact of the 150-acre facility.
Owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles, Hyperion is undergoing its second major expansion since 1950.
The $1.6-billion upgrade finds Hyperion at a crossroads. The city embarked on the project in 1991 to enable Hyperion--which now receives 330 million gallons of raw sewage per day--to provide advanced treatment of all waste water discharged into Santa Monica Bay.
Yet in recent months the effort, required by federal law, has become overshadowed by a national-level tug-of-war between environmentalists and their anti-regulatory opponents. The Republican-controlled Congress is considering relaxing the federal Clean Water Act, possibly so it no longer would require advanced treatment.
Environmentalists worry that a regulatory rollback could reverse years of progress in cleaning up water bodies like Santa Monica Bay, which in recent years has shown signs of recovering from decades of raw sewage disposal.
Bob Sulnick, executive director of the American Oceans Campaign, argues that the success of tougher regulations has made environmental problems seem remote to many of today's leaders. "This new generation of politicians . . . (doesn't) have an understanding of how serious the breakdown in the ecosystem" was during the 1970s and '80s, Sulnick said.
But critics claim advanced sewage treatment is unnecessary on environmental grounds, given how much progress has been made in cleaning up the bay.
They also call it too costly. The city is funding Hyperion's expansion through a sewer service charge, which appears on homeowners' water bills and has soared 238% since 1987, according to the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. For the average homeowner, that charge now stands at $20 a month.
"The cost-benefit view (of the environment) is coming more to the foreground" of public policy, said Scott Farrow, senior economist at Dames & Moore, a Los Angeles-based environmental consulting firm. Farrow estimates that the United States spends $150 billion a year, or 2 1/2% of its gross domestic product, on improving the environment.
"Would (that money) be better spent on earlier schooling, health issues or crime prevention?" Farrow asked.
Over the past 45 years, the level of sewage treatment at Hyperion has been a bellwether for the local debate between economics and the environment. When it opened, Hyperion offered advanced treatment of waste water discharged into the ocean. But as the local population--and sewage costs--soared throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the city of Los Angeles backed away from advanced treatment, and Hyperion began spewing raw sewage and sludge miles off the coast.
Hyperion, which serves the central Los Angeles area, is by far the largest of the four sewage treatment plants operated by the city of Los Angeles. The Terminal Island Treatment Plant provides advanced treatment of waste water for the Los Angeles Harbor area. The Donald C. Tillman and Glendale-Burbank water reclamation plants serve the San Fernando Valley.
Because Hyperion currently provides advanced treatment of only about half the waste water it discharges into Santa Monica Bay, its operations have come under heavy scrutiny from environmentalists.
Crosse, a mild-mannered civil engineer who has managed Hyperion since 1990, keeps a stack of charts in his office outlining the treatment process. Using a pointer, he leads a visitor through the graphics with the unflappable patience of someone accustomed to explaining a complicated scientific subject.
The average person contributes 75 to 100 gallons of waste water per day, through toilet flushes, showers, dishwashers, running taps and so on. By the time the sewage reaches Hyperion--courtesy of 6,500 miles of mainline sewers--it has congealed into a dark gray liquid, Crosse said.
At Hyperion, this unsavory stew is first pumped through bar screens that remove bits of lumber, plastic and other objects that could damage plant equipment. When Hyperion first opened, with a single, mission-style building in 1925, this was about as far as the treatment process went.
Workers then add ferrite chloride, a chemical compound that helps remove solids and reduce unpleasant odors. Crosse said El Segundo neighbors still complain about the smell, particularly when they return home in the evening, though the situation has improved in recent years.