In the last five years, more than 11.6 million gallons of raw sewage have been spilled from wastewater treatment systems throughout the Santa Monica Bay Watershed in 208 separate sewage spills, according to a Los Angeles County auditor-controller report released Wednesday, January 24th.
Of those spills, over 90 percent were never properly recorded by health officials, and no records were kept regarding what was done to protect the safety and health of the public impacted by the spills, according to the auditor-controller report.
The widespread investigation was called for by Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe after a number of sewage spills along Santa Monica Bay in recent months.
The recent investigation is not the first called by Knabe into the way sewage spills are reported across Los Angeles.
After a spill in November 2001, Knabe called for an investigation into whether communication delays between public agencies were causing problems in reporting sewage spills. The report that followed concluded that “the county’s existing standards and procedures are clearly defined, adequate to protect the public health and safety, and in accordance with state laws.”
“Clearly that was not the case,” said Knabe, referring to that report. “Otherwise, why would this new investigation reveal that there were massive problems dating back several years?”
Knabe requested in September of last year that county auditors launch an investigation to meticulously document sewage spills that have occurred in recent years in the Santa Monica Bay Watershed.
He also requested that the investigation determine whether proper protocols were followed by various public agencies to minimize the impact of such spills on public health and environmental health, said Knabe spokesman David Sommers.
The results of the investigation revealed “numerous breakdowns” in the communication system at every level of government and also turned up evidence of hundreds of sewage spills throughout the watershed since January 2002 that show no evidence of ever being recorded, Sommers said.
As part of the review, investigators met with representatives from more than half a dozen agencies in the City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles, as well as environmental advocacy groups and environmental health representatives from Orange County and San Diego County.
The investigation was limited to sewage spills of 1,000 gallons or greater that occurred within the Santa Monica Bay Watershed from January 2002 through July 2006.
The investigation revealed 208 sewage spills, totaling 11.6 million gallons of raw sewage, within that area for that period.
Among the findings of the investigation were:
n records do not exist for 189 of the 208 sewage spills, or 90.8 percent of the spills that occurred in the past four and a half years;
n the 189 spills for which there are no records totaled 9.7 million gallons of raw sewage; and
n the 19 spills for which there are records account for only 1.8 million gallons of the 11.6 million gallons spilled in the watershed.
“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,” Knabe said. “That no evidence exists as to what ever happened to 9.7 million gallons of raw sewage over a 55-month period is abhorrent.
“That’s the equivalent to the volume of nearly 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools and no one has any idea of what happened to the raw sewage.”
As a result of the investigation, Knabe unveiled a number of reform proposals to immediately address and reform the sewage spill reporting process.
Jonathan E. Fielding, director of public health and county health officer, said the auditor-controller report “highlighted some very important issues regarding the reporting of sewage discharges throughout Los Angeles County and in neighboring jurisdictions.”
“Currently, communications between the Department of Public Health and reporting agencies has improved and the department is receiving timely notifications of discharges,” Fielding said.
The department has already implemented some of the auditor-controller’s recommendations, including providing an emergency contact list with multiple staff to act as backups in the case that the primary contact person at the health department is not reachable, he said.
Other recommendations implemented include sending a letter to all 88 cities in the county reminding city managers of the process for reporting discharges, and reiterating department protocols with Long Beach and Pasa-dena Departments of Public Health for reporting discharges outside the jurisdiction, Fielding said.
The Department of Public Health plans in the near term to implement a “regional approach” to sewage discharge reporting, he said.