Back up at water treatment plant that caused sewage spill ‘nearly catastrophic’
The “nearly catastrophic flooding” at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, which led to a sewage spill that closed South Bay beaches for several days last week, has left the facility operating at less-than-full capacity and requires repairs that could take more than a month, Los Angeles sanitation officials said this week.
Those repairs have led to a stench emanating from the plant, adding another concern for residents, who had already questioned why it took most of a day before the public at large was notified about the 17-million gallons of sewage elevating bacteria in the ocean to unhealthy levels.
About a dozen of those residents protested in front of Hyperion, near El Segundo, on Thursday, July 22, the organizer of which said her child swam in the ocean within hours of the spill and heard others complain about the odor making them sick.
Hyperion officials, meanwhile, said this week that they alerted the state Office of Emergency Services to the July 11 spill around 8 p.m. that day, about an hour after the sewage began flowing into the ocean from a one-mile outfall. In doing so, Hyperion officials effectively placed blame on the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health for failing to notify beachgoers earlier.
The county health department, in turn, said in a statement that it took time to assess the seriousness of the spill, delaying when it could make an appropriate announcement.
The revelations this week shed further light on how serious the incident was, but also how much worse it could have been if the entire plant — which handles 260 million gallons of waste per day from around LA County — shut down or workers had failed to stop the flooding. LA Sanitation & Environment, the city agency that operates the plant, described its workers’ efforts as tantamount to preventing a major environmental crisis.
“They put up a valiant struggle to save Hyperion and the Santa Monica Bay during the emergency overflow discharge,” the department said in a Wednesday, July 21, statement. “Their heroic efforts averted a much larger catastrophe, and limited the discharge of untreated wastewater to 17 million gallons, which is a small fraction of the 260 million gallons per day that could have polluted Santa Monica Bay for days on end.”
The Hyperion plant, which opened in 1894 and has been expanded and improved multiple times over the decades, is LA’s oldest and largest wastewater treatment facility.
It is part of a massive network that takes raw sewage from its source – such as the waste from toilets – through the 6,700 miles of piping the sanitation department manages, to Hyperion for treatment and then, finally, the Santa Monica Bay.
LA Sanitation & Environment manages wastewater for Southern California’s most populous city – with about 4 million residents – and about 30 other cities it contracts with, from Beverly Hills to Culver City, executive plant manager Timeyin Dafeta told the Southern California News Group last week.
That vast network typically handles the deluge of waste each day without much fanfare.
And, Dafeta said in last week’s interview, the plant should have had enough capacity on July 11, a Sunday, to handle the sewage coming in.
But it did not.
Instead, the system became overwhelmed.
Sensors at the plant began showing sewage flows going above capacity at around 7 p.m. that day, Dafeta said, and workers notified the state Office of Emergency Services at 8:10 p.m.
While an investigation into the cause is ongoing, it’s likely that a combination of materials not intended for the sewer system were to blame.
“We see pieces of lumber,” Dafeta told SCNG. “We see all that stuff that just comes in, that finds a way into the sewer system that does not belong there.”
While the plant has experienced similar incidents in the past, including in 2005, the July 11 one was worse, Dafeta said.
To cope, the plant, which normally sends treated wastewater down a five-mile outfall to the ocean, began sending untreated sewage through its one-mile outfall.
That caused beaches from El Segundo to the southern end of Playa del Rey to be contaminated with bacteria above levels the state deems safe.
Those beaches would close on Monday, July 12, and wouldn’t reopen again until Thursday, July 15.
Public health crisis
The controversy over the spill has traveled in recent days along two separate tracks:
One about whether officials acted quickly and adequately enough when informing the public about the potential health consequences, and the other about the severity of the crisis the plant faced.
California’s Office of Emergency Services said, in a statement this week, that once Hyperion officials notified it of the spill, the state agency almost simultaneously told the county Department of Public Health.
The health department, in its own statement, confirmed that, but also said assessing the danger to the public took time.
“At 12:58 a.m. Monday,” the county statement said, “officials at the Hyperion Plant were still unable to determine how much sewage had been discharged through the one-mile outlet.”
Plant officials confirmed around 10 a.m. that day that 17 million gallons had spilled, the health department said, and within the hour, signs were up at the beaches warning of the danger.
But the first widely disseminated notification did not come from Hyperion or DPH. It came from LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who tweeted about the beach closures around 2:30 p.m. July 12.
The health department’s public advisory did not get posted on Twitter until 5:30 p.m.
That wasn’t nearly soon enough for some residents and officials.
“I know (DPH is) saying it’s the city of LA’s responsibility and they followed protocol,” said Nikia Gonzales, who helped organize the Thursday protest at Hyperion’s entrance, on Vista Del Mar. “But at what point do you use your common human sense to notify the residents?”
The El Segundo resident’s daughter swam in the waters that morning during one of her first days back at a beach summer camp since the coronavirus pandemic.
A lifeguard at the camp, Gonzales said, saw the posted signs and made her own decision about halfway through the day to pull children out of the water.
The experience has left Gonzales frustrated and angry, she said, though her daughter has not demonstrated any ill health effects, she said.
Los Angeles Controller Ron Galperin has also demanded answers.
In a letter to Sanitation & Environment this week, Galperin demanded to know, among other things, what the criteria is for a crisis at Hyperion to trigger an emergency alert via the NotifyLA mass notification system.
Hahn has also demanded a report on the spill.
Los Angeles officials plan to address residents’ concerns at the Aug. 17 City Council meeting.
The other issue, however, is how severe the plant’s malfunction was – and how much worse it could have been.
The sewage that spilled into the ocean was 6% of the plant’s daily load. And workers released the sewage, Dafeta said last week, as a last resort to prevent the whole plant from flooding.
“It was either have that water go out or flood the whole plant,” he said, “and then you would have a plant that’s not running, and then you have 260 million gallons going out for an extended period of time.”
But significant flooding still occurred, according to a Wednesday statement from Sanitation & Environment.
Raw sewage flowed through the one-mile outfall, intended to relieve the system when it becomes overburdened, for eight hours while plant staff worked overnight to clear the backed up headworks facilities, the department’s statement said.
Yet, wastewater overflowed into the plant.
“Wastewater from the plant headworks flowed through roadways within the plant,” the statement said, “inundated multiple buildings on site, flooded underground pipe galleries, submerged equipment and caused significant damage.”
That statement also described the flooding as “nearly catastrophic.”
The sanitation department, though, did not explain how close Hyperion came to a worst-case scenario.
“Worst-Case-Scenario would be the discharge of 260 million gallons per day of untreated wastewater into the Santa Monica Bay for days on end,” Elena Stern, spokeswoman for the LA Department of Public Works, which oversees Sanitation & Environment, said in an email when asked to define “nearly catastrophic.”
“What is most important,” she added, “is the Worst-Case-Scenario was averted by the heroic efforts of the hard working and dedicated frontline staff of LA Sanitation and Environment.”
City workers and contractors, however, are still working around the clock to pump out the water, Sanitation and Environment’s Wednesday statement said.
And the flooding caused a temporary shutdown of Hyperion Bioenergy Facility, which has brought its own set of problems – for the plant and residents.
That facility generates power from digester gas, a byproduct of wastewater. The facility, when fully operational, produces 20 megawatts of power a day, enough for 30,000 homes – and annually saving 95,000 tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, the sanitation department said.
It will take “no more than a month” to restore the Bioenergy Facility, the primary power generator for Hyperion, Stern said.
In the meantime, the plant must combust the unused digester gas, resulting in flaring – and an odor that has further riled residents.
“Over the past several days,” Gonzales said earlier this week as she organized the protest, “I am seeing kids posting on Facebook about people feeling sick and going to the hospital, having nausea and headaches and waking up in the middle of the night because the smell is so intoxicating.”
When asked to respond to that and other allegations about ill health from the odor, Stern referred to the sanitation department’s website for more information.
“The City of Los Angeles recognizes and regrets the inconveniences to El Segundo residents,” a Thursday statement on that website says, “caused by the incident at Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant on July 11, 2021.”
To help improve “quality of life,” the statement said, Los Angeles will offer residents affected by the odor one of two choices:
They can get an air conditioning unit worth up to $1,200. Or they can seek reimbursement for a hotel stay, at $182 per day, plus meals and other expenses up to $62 per day for each person. To complete an application: lacitysan.org/alerts.
Hyperion officials, meanwhile, are trying to complete repairs at the plant quickly.
Stern said the plant won’t know the cost of the damage until repairs are done. And when asked at what capacity Hyperion is operating, she said it’s treating “260 million gallons” daily, the amount it typically handles – despite the plant not being 100% operational.
“It is expected to take a month or more to repair damaged facilities and equipment in order to restore full functionality to Hyperion,” Sanitation & Environment said in its Wednesday statement. “Our commitment is to complete the repairs as soon as possible.”