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Concerns, finger-pointing greet audit of sewage spills

A county report that says most incidents aren't acted on sparks calls for new measures.

January 26, 2007|Sharon Bernstein and Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writers

Southern Californians love their beaches.

So to keep the beaches and ocean unfouled, government agencies have over the last decade passed strict pollution laws and spent millions of dollars trying to reduce sewage spills and urban runoff.

But a county audit released this week determined that all of the regulations and disclosure requirements have created a communications breakdown that has left Los Angeles County health officials in the dark about numerous sewage spills.

The audit found that the county had records for just 19 of the 208 major sewage spills since 2002, which dumped nearly 10 million gallons of untreated waste onto streets and into creeks and other tributaries that lead to the sea.

How much of this raw sewage reached the ocean is unknown, but experts said the sheer volume makes it highly likely that some did.

But either because cities and water agencies didn't notify the county health department about their spills or the department didn't follow up on notifications it did receive, beaches were not tested or closed, leaving beachgoers possibly exposed to effluent.

The findings alarmed county leaders and environmental groups, who called Thursday for immediate creation of a clearinghouse for information about sewage leaks that could flow into the ocean, causing dangerous increases in bacteria levels.

"There was a total communication breakdown," said Anjali Jaiswal, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has been active in Santa Monica Bay pollution issues. "There would be spills and they wouldn't be reported properly. The public wasn't notified."

Part of the problem is that various ocean pollution laws require different types of notification.

State law requires county health officials to act when a raw sewage spill reaches the ocean adjacent to a public beach, but gives local health departments leeway in determining whether a spill is big enough to reach the beach. One law requires agencies to inform the state Office of Emergency Services, while another requires them to contact county public health agencies.

Meanwhile, local water agencies and the county health department were pointing fingers about where the communications breakdown took place and whether it affected water quality.

County officials say they typically log all communications with their offices, and that there are no indications that the cities and water agencies that spilled most of the sewage phoned to report it.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county's public health director, said that one or two calls might have been lost by county operators, but every call routed to the health department was logged, and the spill investigated.

But the cities, including Los Angeles, which dumped the most sewage into the bay, have meticulous records documenting the size and time of the spills.

It is not clear whether the cities' records include references to phone calls made to report the spills.

But Barry Berggren, division manager for the city of Los Angeles' wastewater collection system, said he personally phoned the county Department of Public Health to report high-volume leaks that occurred in Glassell Park on Jan. 9, 2005.

On that day, a heavy rainstorm sent more than 1 million gallons of raw sewage into the storm drain system, which directs runoff into the Los Angeles River and Long Beach Harbor.

The county auditor-controller's report listed those spills as unreported, with no known action taken.

Berggren says that's not true.

"For some reason, they believe they weren't notified. I don't know why that is," Berggren said.

Neil Miller, public works director for Manhattan Beach, said his department immediately reports every sewage leak that reaches a storm drain. Because the city is so close to the ocean, any spill could pollute the water very quickly, so it is in the city's interest to report them so the county can close the beaches before swimmers are exposed, he said.

"Especially in the coastal communities, if sewage has a chance of reaching the ocean they need to do extra testing to see if it's safe for swimming," Miller said.

County Supervisor Don Knabe, who ordered the audit after a massive release of raw sewage by Culver City last year went unreported for two days, said there is no doubt in his mind that the system is broken.

"I knew we had some issues but I had no idea they were so severe," Knabe said.

The audit recommended several reforms, some as simple as providing county operators with the names and telephone numbers of officials to be contacted if a spill occurs after business hours.

The report also recommended a centralized program to field reports of spills and track their cleanup, size and costs.

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