In the subterranean tangle of pipes that carries Los Angeles' waste out of the city, the most bedeviling element is often a glob of grease bobbing through the sewers.
Hot fat from the skillets and fryers of the city's restaurants slides through the pipes, sticking to the sides and hardening--sometimes blocking a pipe completely.
As Los Angeles faces a demand by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that it stop its frequent sewage spills, one of the most critical variables is the way restaurants dispose of grease.
An EPA audit blames grease blockages for 41% of the city's sewer spills between 1997 and 1999. They cause spills of raw sewage into city streets 200 to 250 times a year--and most of those occur along sewer pipes near restaurants.
Vincent Varsh, assistant director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation, said: "When you look at the grease down there in the sewer, it really is yucky."
City officials are hoping to strengthen a local law regulating restaurants' grease disposal. Fewer than 400 large restaurants in Los Angeles are subject to city inspection. A quarter of those have been required to install grease interceptors or grease traps to catch oily waste before it goes down the drain.
Bureau of Sanitation officials want to expand the city's grease control program to almost all food service establishments, requiring about 10,000 restaurants, school cafeterias, food processors and other facilities to get waste water permits, have annual inspections and limit their grease disposal. At least 185 a year would be required to install devices to catch grease before it flows into the sewers.
The restaurant industry is worried that such a law could be a deadly financial hit for some eateries, and is pushing for a less severe ordinance that targets specific restaurants near commonly blocked sewers.
"We do agree that something needs to be done to protect the environment," said Kristin Olsen, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Assn. "But it could have a tremendous impact . . . [and] even put people out of business."
Because of the number of restaurants in the city, sanitation officials agree that the initial focus of the proposed five-year program should be restaurants near frequent spills.
Under the current law, only restaurants with 150 seats or more need permits that regulate their disposal of used cooking oil. City inspectors decide whether individual facilities produce enough grease to require an underground grease interceptor, which traps particles of fat in a chamber, or a grease trap, a less expensive device that fits under a sink and needs to be emptied several times a day.
Some restaurants save the used cooking fat in a container, much like some people do at home, and recycle it once it has solidified.
At Margarita Jones, a large family-style Mexican restaurant across from USC, kitchen workers pour hot grease into large metal containers. Owner Pedro Vasquez pays a disposal company about $300 a month to collect the congealed grease and recycle it. But he says he could not afford a sophisticated grease-trapping system.
The Bureau of Sanitation has been talking about reforming the city's decades-old disposal rules for several years, and is holding a series of eight hearings with the food industry this month. The first public workshop is scheduled for Thursday in Universal City.
Officials plan to present a draft ordinance to the Department of Public Works in February, and then take it before the City Council, with hopes of getting a new law on the books this year.
Only new restaurants or those drastically upgrading their plumbing systems would be required to install grease interceptora, which can cost up to $50,000. Businesses that are still dumping too much grease down the drain after a year of inspection would be required to put in grease traps, which average about $1,000.
All restaurants that qualify for the program would have to pay a onetime $356 application fee, and then $244 a year for inspections.
The fees would help cover the estimated $1.5 million cost of the program. The Bureau of Sanitation, which currently inspects 6,300 establishments citywide on a variety of waste regulations, would need an additional 15 employees to handle its increased workload, Varsh said.
Aides to Mayor Richard Riordan said he has qualms about the financial impact of a strict grease control ordinance, but remains open to the idea.
"I think there's a concern that we don't want to put an undue burden on small businesses," Deputy Mayor Ben Austin said.
Many of the grease blockages and other problems will be resolved within the next decade, as the city implements $1.4 billion in sewer improvements, Austin added.
In order to prevent spills, city crews clear grease-clogged pipes about four times a year--20 times more frequently than average sewers need to be cleaned--at a cost of $1.5 million annually.
"That takes away from the rest of the city," said Barry Berggren, division manager of the city's waste water collection systems.
On Tuesday afternoon, orange cones blocked off part of Bamboo Lane in Chinatown, where two sanitation workers stood over an acrid-smelling, steaming manhole. The pipe 10 feet below, which serves about a dozen nearby restaurants, regularly gets clogged with sticky yellow grease.
A long blue hose snaked down the hole into the open sewage line, where shiny particles floated on top of the dank gray water.
The bright orange truck behind him gave a loud whine as crew leader Octavio Edeza started up the hydraulic cleaner, discharging 60 gallons of water a minute through the hose into the eight-inch sewage pipe. Down in the sewer, the water gushed and swirled, and suddenly large milky chunks of congealed grease bounced into view.
"Sometimes when we look down there, the grease has formed a thick layer, like icing on a cake," Edeza said, wrinkling his nose. "It's pretty gross, but after a while out here, you get used to it."