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L.A. County scrambles to defend Long Beach Harbor from storm debris

The county had been paying a firm to operate a trash-gathering boom across the mouth of the Los Angeles River, but funding ran out. The company will reinstall it, but officials don't know who will collect the garbage.

January 23, 2009|Louis Sahagun

Facing forecasts of wet weather that could flush tons of urban trash out to sea and onto local beaches, Los Angeles County authorities scrambled Thursday to reinstall a boom across the outlet of the Los Angeles River to keep debris out of Long Beach Harbor.

The boom had been decommissioned Monday because the county Department of Public Works ran out of money to keep it operating.

The problem, according to a spokesman for the department, was that a company which had been paid $450,000 to operate the boom this year -- and remove the trash it harvested -- had completed its contractual obligations ahead of schedule.

As a result, Frey Environmental Inc. of Newport Beach on Monday was ordered to take the boom out of service while public works authorities sought permission from the county Board of Supervisors to renew its contract.

Complicating matters, the board canceled its meeting Tuesday because several members had traveled to Washington to attend the presidential inauguration. The department said it may not be able to resume Frey's trash removal services until early February.

With showers expected over the next several days, runoff from the L.A. Basin may overwhelm defenses in Long Beach and deposit more trash than usual in popular destinations such as Rainbow Harbor. Authorities have hastily devised a stopgap measure: ask Frey to deploy the boom, then find some other means of hauling out the trash it corrals.

"There will not be a gap in hauling out the trash," said Diego Cardena, deputy director of public works. "But who will remove that trash, we still don't know.

"One thing is clear. In the future we will go with larger contracts of about $1.2 million."

Frey Environmental spokesman Joe Frey declined to comment except to say, "The county has asked that we not harvest trash currently."

Mark Abramson, director of watershed programs for the environmental group Santa Monica Baykeeper, expressed dismay over the county's handling of the problem. "We're happy they were able to find the resources to redeploy the boom and protect the ocean and beachgoers from the pollution associated with all debris and trash," he said. "But it's unfortunate that they are not able to foresee these problems."

Much of the trash caught by the boom is vegetation uprooted by storm surges throughout the 834-square-mile Los Angeles River watershed, which includes 44 cities and unincorporated communities and about 9 million people.

Since 2006, Frey has removed 1,847 tons of trash from the river at a cost to the county of about $2.2 million, said Kerjon Lee, spokesman for the department's watershed management division. Now, the county believes it needs about $750,000 to continue the service through this fiscal year.

Tom Leary, who is in charge of Long Beach's storm water division, said the temporary loss of the boom service was "a serious problem."

"It will definitely have an impact on marine habitat and sense of community," Leary said. "But it is also true that the county is a good partner with Long Beach. Each year, it sends us about $500,000 for beach maintenance efforts."

In any case, he pointed out that the boom "has never been the solution" to Long Beach's urban runoff problem. Each year, the city collects roughly 4,500 tons of trash and debris from its shorelines.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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