Concerned by the rising number of beach closures across Southern California, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched a sweeping review of sewage-collection systems in 25 coastal cities to determine whether the Clean Water Act is being violated.
The EPA has sent in-depth questionnaires to cities and sanitation districts from Santa Barbara to San Diego seeking documents about the operation and maintenance of waste-water lines. It also requested records of all leaks and spills into the ocean. In the coming months, inspectors may also be dispatched for on-site examinations of the underground pipes that carry sewage from homes and businesses to treatment plants.
The review, the first of its kind involving the Southern California coast, was prompted by several highly publicized beach closures in recent years, including one in 1999 that kept large parts of Huntington Beach off-limits to swimmers for much of the summer.
Officials said that in addition to making sure that sewer operations comply with federal law, the review will help the EPA in its efforts to develop regulations for waste-water systems and their effect on ocean pollution.
"There's a general concern about all of the beach closures," said Ken Greenberg, an environmental engineer heading the EPA project. "It's important to check out the situation to see how [the sewer systems] are performing."
Any cities found to be unlawfully discharging pollutants from sewage pipes into U.S. waterways without a valid federal permit could face civil, administrative or criminal fines ranging from $2,500 to $50,000 a day until the problems are fixed.
The review comes seven months after the EPA and state officials sued Los Angeles, demanding that the city stop its sewage spills, which average two per day.
Typically, waste water is flushed down sinks, showers, bathtubs and toilets into underground sewer lines operated and maintained by cities or small sanitation districts. It is then channeled to a network of trunk lines, some of which are as wide as a car.
These large collection pipes are overseen by agencies such as the Orange and Los Angeles counties' sanitation districts. Officials from both agencies said their operations are in compliance with federal law and they do not anticipate penalties.
"Our system has been pretty stable," said Joe Haworth, spokesman for the Los Angeles County district, the region's largest with 1,300 miles of concrete pipes serving nearly 80 cities.
Haworth said his agency has spent $300 million since 1985 rehabilitating and updating the system, some parts of which were built in the 1920s.
The Orange County Sanitation District checks its 650 miles of pipes on a regular basis, as frequently as every two months in areas prone to breaks and clogs.
"We don't have any problems in our system," spokeswoman Lisa Lawson said.
One city that has experienced major problems is Huntington Beach, where an estimated 71,324 gallons a day of raw sewage escaped from badly cracked clay pipes throughout the 1990s. The leaks have long been suspected of contributing to ocean pollution that has forced periodic closures of beaches. In March, the city pleaded guilty to criminal charges for allowing the sewage to leak into the ground.
Huntington city leaders said they welcome any EPA investigation that will shed light on infrastructure flaws. But they point out that they are already addressing the issue. Thousands of miles of lines have been videotaped, and problem areas have been lined with protective sleeves. A monthly sewer fee of about $6 per household is also being considered to pay for improved maintenance.
"Sewers are kind of out of sight, out of mind until someone calls attention to them," Councilwoman Connie Boardman said. "Anything that helps cities and government agencies focus on their infrastructure is good."
A report released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the number of beach closures in California and across the nation nearly doubled last year, a jump attributed primarily to more stringent pollution testing of recreational waters.
Sewer leaks are considered the second-most-common cause of beach pollution, after urban runoff. A mixture of fertilizer, pet waste, motor oil and other contaminants is swept off lawns and streets into storm drains and waterways that flow into the ocean.