A sewage spill which emanated from a condominium in Mid-Wilshire entered Ballona Creek Wednesday, May 23rd, forcing county public health officials to close Venice Beach and Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey prior to the Memorial Day weekend.

What was initially said to be 5,000 gallons of sewage was updated to 11,605 gallons as of Tuesday, May 29th, more than double the original estimate.

Gervork Kazanchyan of the Oceanwater Monitoring Program, a division of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said that 4,855 gallons were captured, allowing for a maximum of 6,750 gallons that could have entered into the storm drain system.

“I received a call at 1:30 a.m. about the spill from the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, and we began notifying the lifeguard captains to post signs of beach closure a half a mile from both Venice and Dockweiler beaches,” Kazanchyan told The Argonaut.

“Once we learned of the discharge, our first concern was how this will affect people visiting our area beaches, especially in light of the [Memorial Day] weekend,” said county health officer and public health director Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding in a statement. “While the beaches were still open for recreational uses such as walking, exercising or relaxing, we advised people to avoid swimming and playing in the ocean water, specifically at the posted areas.”

The county tested the water over the holiday weekend for bacteria levels to see if they met county health standards. Both Venice and Dockweiler were cleared for use Saturday afternoon, May 26th.

“We sampled the water at its entry point for elevated bacteria levels, and we were able to determine that the ocean water levels were within our safety standards,” said Kazanchyan.

The rapid response from the county was due to actions initiated by an investigation by the office of County Supervisor Don Knabe, said his press deputy, David Sommers.

Last year, Knabe called for an investigation to look into accusations that spills that involved Los Angeles County beaches and the ocean were underreported.

“This investigation revealed a number of alarming breakdowns of the most unacceptable kind — breakdowns that have the potential to impact the health of the public and the quality of our environment,” said Knabe earlier this year.

“The (probe) found a number of loopholes in the way the county reported the spills, and we closed them,” Sommers added.

Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Action Network, an environmental organization based in Marina del Rey, said she was happy that there was a quick response to the spill by the county, and that signs were posted at Del Rey Lagoon, where children and families use the water.

“The last time there was a sewage spill, (the county) forgot about Del Rey Lagoon,” she recalled. “A lot of people use that park.”

Hanscom was referring to a spill that originated in Culver City last year that also found its way into Ballona Creek. In that case, the Culver City city manager did not notify other city authorities for two days.

Sommers said that county officials kept in touch with Knabe’s office after the May 23rd spill was reported and provided updates after the beaches were reopened.

“We were kept apprised over the weekend by county Public Health,” Sommers said. “From all appearances, from notifying the community and all of the proper authorities, it seems like Public Health did everything that they should have done.”

Some early news accounts suggested the cause of the leakage was a tree root in a sewer pipe, but the actual reason for the discharge was a buildup of grease, fats and oils from a condominium at 4925 Wilshire Boulevard, said Stephanie Interiano, public information officer for the City of Los Angeles Public Works Department.

“The residents contacted a private contractor first, and we were not notified until 11 p.m.,” said Interiano.

“We sent a crew out to investigate, and they were able to clear the blockage, which had spilled out into the street, as well as into the storm drain,” Interiano added.

The city crew also inspected the sewer pipe for any damage.

Interiano said her department would also distribute educational material to the condominium residents regarding the proper disposal of fatty greases that can cause a pipe to overflow.

In addition to notifying the County Public Health Department, the Bureau of Sanitation is also required to inform the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board when a spill occurs.

Kazanchyan said that when a sewage spill is reported and it enters a watershed or ocean, his department’s policy is any beach that may be affected is closed for a minimum of two days.

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