Health officials face anger over hours-long delay before notifying public of danger
Seventeen million gallons of untreated sewage were discharged into California’s Santa Monica Bay between Sunday evening and early Monday morning, spurring beach closures, as well as criticism of how health officials notified the public about potential safety risks.
The problems came to a head at Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, located in the Playa del Rey area of Los Angeles, on Sunday evening. An “unusual amount of debris” – including construction waste and grease, among other refuse – entered the plant through its sewer lines, said Elena Stern, a senior public information director for the city’s department of public works.
These items, which Hyperion is not designed to process, “just inundated and overwhelmed the system”, clogging the screens which, in turn, caused flooding at the plant. “To avoid having the entire plant shut down, which would have been catastrophic, we had to discharge some of the untreated sewage to alleviate the system,” Stern said.
Raw sewage began to be released around 7.30pm and managers notified state officials just after 8.10pm – with the Los Angeles county public health department showing up on the scene about two and a half hours later. The raw sewage discharge ended at 4.30am on Monday; in total, the discharge constituted about 6% of Hyperion’s daily flow.
The public health department posted an advisory to Twitter at 5.30pm on Monday stating that the El Segundo and Dockweiler Beaches in Los Angeles were closed because of this sewage discharge. Officials advised beachgoers to “stay out of the water until the advisory is removed”.
The department said it had sent out a press release around 5.15pm. (A copy seen by the Guardian lists the send time as 5.36pm.) The department also said that workers started posting signs on affected beaches around 11am.
A captain with the county fire department’s lifeguard division told the Los Angeles Times that his teams had only learned of beach closures at around 12pm, when they spotted a county worker posting a notice on a lifeguard station.
The delay between the raw sewage discharge and broad public notification has prompted criticism. Janice Hahn, a county supervisor, said on Twitter: “What happened yesterday off the coast of Dockweiler Beach was irresponsible, unacceptable and dangerous.
“Not only did the Hyperion Plant release 17 million gallons of sewage into our ocean, the public had little to no information about it for HOURS,” Hahn said. In another tweet, Hahn wrote: “We need to hear from LA City Sanitation about what went wrong to lead to this massive spill – but we also need to recognize that LA County Public Health did not effectively communicate with the public and could have put swimmers in danger.”
“It took way too long,” said Shelley Luce, who heads Heal the Bay, an environmental non-profit and water quality watchdog for greater Los Angeles.
“There’s a protocol in place that requires immediate closing of beaches when there’s a raw sewage spill, and yet it took hours,” Luce said. “When they did close the beaches, they went out and posted signs. There needed to be a much bigger effort to let people know.”
Luce said that water advocates would follow up with city officials to figure out why longstanding protocols had not been followed. A post on Heal the Bay’s website also noted: “We have heard from many concerned folx that they were at the beaches on Sunday evening and Monday all day without any knowledge of the spill, or any ability to take precautions.”
Stern said that testing over the course of two days showed that the water was safe. The public health department will decide when to reopen El Segundo and Dockweiler Beaches.
Asked for comment on the criticism about notification, the department said in an email: “We are evaluating our response to this incident and will update our practices going forward to ensure that measures are in place to effectively notify the public.
“If state standards are met beaches can be reopened as early as tonight,” the statement also said.