NORTH HOLLYWOOD — A Department of Water and Power proposal to convert sewage to drinking water was blasted at a state Senate committee meeting Thursday night at Madison Middle School.
"Here's the real question we have--do people really have an option to decide?" asked Xavier Flores of the San Fernando Valley Mexican American Political Assn., one of more than 100 people at the hearing.
Gerardo Guzman of Pueblo y Salud, a health organization that serves the San Fernando Valley, noted that many Latinos cannot afford to buy bottled water as an alternative.
"Latinos make up 40% of the county, and we will suffer disproportionately from the adverse health effects of this project," he said.
The plan was also criticized by Mary May of the Family Child Care Council of the San Fernando Valley, who questioned whether safety guidelines aimed at adults would also be adequate for children.
"We see action after action to gloss over public safety laws by saying, 'We are pretty sure it's going to be safe,' " she said. "Well, that's not enough. Children are not just little adults, and their exposure to this treated sewage water cannot be compared to adults'."
The special meeting of the state Senate Select Committee on Environmental Justice was called by Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), who said he did not think communities were given enough facts about the project and how it would affect their drinking water.
"This is an option of last resort," said Alarcon, who chairs the Select Committee. "I don't believe we are experiencing a shortage."
The $55-million East Valley Water Reclamation Project to convert sewage to drinking water was sharply criticized earlier in the week at a city hearing where many residents and Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs accused DWP officials of not adequately explaining the plan.
"I remember the same words with the aerial spraying of malathion--it's safe, safe, safe," Wachs said Thursday night. "Then after 10 years, the EPA announces malathion is a carcinogen."
Critics said the DWP failed to clearly explain its intent to sell the water for residential use. Even so, state health experts and environmentalists have said the plan is safe and should proceed.
At Thursday's hearing, DWP General Manager David Freeman noted that the state Health Department has said the treated water will be "the cleanest water going into the aquifer" and that the Health Department decides what water is safe.
"No, ultimately the public decides," Alarcon interjected.
The proposed DWP sewage conversion process takes five years. First the sewage would be treated at the Donald C. Tillman Plant in Van Nuys and pumped to spreading grounds near Hansen Dam.
Then, over five years, the water would seep into the ground and toward a Tujunga well and pumping station. At the well, the water would be disinfected and tested before distribution.
A new Balboa pumping station and piping were built for the East Valley water project and a demonstration project to treat 10,000 acre-feet of water annually is ready to proceed.
DWP officials said a wide swath of Los Angeles could receive the water, including North Hollywood, Studio City, Toluca Lake, downtown Los Angeles, Highland Park, Hollywood Hills, Hancock Park, Playa del Rey and Westchester. Eventually, other sections of the city could receive the water.
Sewage-to-drinking water programs are in use by other agencies, including a Whittier Narrows plant--in operation since the 1960s--a county sanitation process that supplies water to such Southeastern communities as Pico Rivera and Lakewood.
"I'm a big supporter of reclaimed water for industrial uses and landscaping, but is there a way to avoid drinking it?" Alarcon said. "You cannot make a mistake."