Medical waste that washed up at Dockweiler may be a sign of bigger problems to come during El Niño

By Gary Walker

Some 200 pounds of bio-waste washed up at Dockweiler last week Photo by Neil Budde

Some 200 pounds of bio-waste washed up at Dockweiler last week
Photo by Neil Budde

Local water quality scientists are worried that the mess of tampon applicators, condoms, hypodermic needles and other medical waste that washed up on Dockweiler State Beach last week could be a warning sign of even worse pollution hitting the coastline if or when El Niño storms hit L.A.

Cleaning crews collected more than 200 pounds of biohazard debris from the beach in Playa del Rey following a rainstorm that unleased the torrent of refuse, according to the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation.

Bureau of Sanitation spokeswoman Tonya Durrell said the agency is still investigating the source of the debris.

One culprit could be a backup treated wastewater dispersal pipe at the nearby Hyperion Treatment plant being that’s being used due to the failure of an emergency pipe during the last rain storm. There was no net placed on the backup pipe, called an outfall, which sanitation officials say might have allowed the debris to escape.

Heal the Bay water quality data analyst Leslie Griffin said that while there have been reports suggesting that the waste could have washed down from the Ballona Wetlands, Heal the Bay thinks the Hyperion plant is the likely culprit and will continue monitoring water quality near the emergency pipe.

“There’s really no other source that makes sense,” Griffin said.

No matter the size of the storm, the amount of waste that ended up at Dockweiler was far greater than it should have been, she said.

“There’s no reason this amount of trash should have gotten through the system. It wasn’t something that the treatment plant shouldn’t have been able to cope with,” Griffin said. “We don’t want to have this same issue on our beaches [when El Niño arrives], especially since this one was such a catastrophe.”

The National Weather Service predicts “an approximately 95% chance that El Niño will continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter of 2015,” creating a much wetter than normal Los Angeles winter.

Los Angeles Waterkeeper Executive Director Bruce Reznik views what happened at Dockweiler as a “good wakeup” for government officials and water quality organizations.

“With El Niño, we’re probably going to have more of these kinds of issues, so it could be a few months of some very tense situations with a greater risk of overflow,” Reznik said.

Local officials must quickly make infrastructure improvements to prevent pipe overflow during heavy rains, said Becky Hayat, an attorney with the Santa Monica-based Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program.

“What happened at Hyperion last week demonstrates the need for controlling treated wastewater discharges, especially during wet weather conditions. Given the potential for El Niño to bring heavy rainfall this winter, it is especially imperative that we implement these green practices so that the health and safety of our communities are not put at risk again,” Hayat said.

The flood of potential biohazards came less than a week after Heal the Bay’s Coastal Cleanup Day efforts removed more than 21,000 pounds of trash and debris from Los Angeles County beaches.

“It’s very disappointing. We certainly wish this debris would have been on the beach during the beach cleanup instead of afterwards,” said Griffin. “The quantity [of debris] was unprecedented and very troubling. It’s definitely an awakening.”