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L.A. to Replace Sewage Pipes

After decades of spills, the city settles a lawsuit and will start replacing deteriorated lines. The cost could hit $2 billion, and rates may rise.

August 06, 2004|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

To end decades of frequent sewage spills, Los Angeles has agreed to replace hundreds of miles of deteriorated pipes as part of a settlement with environmentalists and federal and state authorities that could cost the city $2 billion.

Sewer rates probably will have to go up, city officials said.

The settlement, which officials plan to announce today, forces Los Angeles to adhere to a strict schedule to fix its sewage system and to spend $300 million more on improvements over the next 10 years.

The city had estimated that it would cost about $1.7 billion to repair the worst of its 6,700 miles of sewer lines.

Many of the spills occurred during rainstorms in neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw district and Leimert Park, and at times raw sewage has inundated the street in front of Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles. About a third of the spills ended up in rivers or surface water that flowed into the ocean.

"Today's settlement recognizes and memorializes the city's commitment to repair and replace its aging sewage infrastructure, to serve the needs of generations to come," said Wayne Nastri, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Southwest office in San Francisco.

"This investment will protect neighborhoods and millions of beachgoers from the ill effects of sewage spills," Nastri added.

To settle the case, the city agreed to replace at least 488 miles of sewer lines, clean 2,800 miles of sewers annually, improve controls on restaurant grease discharges, impose odor control measures and increase the sewage system's capacity.

The settlement also calls for the city to spend $8.5 million on environmental protection projects, including wetland restoration and a water cleanup effort at Cabrillo Beach, according to Tracy Egoscue, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper, the environmental organization that initiated the lawsuit six years ago.

"This is an important settlement," Egoscue said. "Baykeeper supports the leadership of the city of Los Angeles and their commitment to reduce sewage spills in our community."

The city also will pay $800,000 in civil penalties to the federal government and the entire $1.6 million in legal costs incurred by Santa Monica Baykeeper.

"It's a historic agreement that is going to go a long way to enhancing water quality and enhancing neighborhoods in the city," said Francine Diamond, chairwoman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which also sued the city.

To pay for the work, city officials are discussing increasing the average monthly residential bill of $21 by $1.75 a month for five years, according to Assistant City Atty. Cecilia Estolano.

The city's crumbling sewer system serves about 3.8 million residents, making it the nation's largest. About 60% of the pipes date back 50 years or more.

Last year, city officials admitted in federal court that Los Angeles was responsible for 3,668 sewage spills that have flooded streets and polluted the ocean since 1993.

Each spill was a violation of state and federal clean-water laws, which caused the federal EPA and regional board to sue the city in 2001.

Estolano said Baykeeper originally sought penalties of $550 million; the $800,000 in civil penalties is a fraction of that.

Mayor James K. Hahn and the City Council have signed off on the settlement and plan to announce it today at a news conference at City Hall.

Los Angeles will replace the first 68 miles of pipe during the first three years, and replace 60 more miles each year after that. Normally, the city replaces 40 miles of pipe per year.

Councilman Jack Weiss refused to discuss details of the settlement until it was filed in federal court today, but said it represented a reversal in the hard-line position the city has held for decades.

"This is a long-overdue victory for the environment," Weiss said. "For too long, city government has wrongly decided to pay lawyers fees to fight for the right to pollute."

EPA officials on Thursday said the cost of the required improvements, expansion of the sewer system and other mitigation measures -- including improvement of city efforts to keep fats and grease out of sewer pipes -- probably would reach $2 billion.

Federal officials also said the settlement requires the city to undertake more aggressive maintenance practices and advanced planning to identify and repair or replace problem sewers before they spill.

"The joint enforcement action will bring long-term significant improvement to Los Angeles' sewer system," said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

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