Environment & Science

Councilman wants to know if city or rogue dumper is behind beach contamination

A closure was announced Sept. 23  when medical waste was spotted in the sand along the nearly 4-mile-long Dockweiler State Beach.
A closure was announced Sept. 23 when medical waste was spotted in the sand along the nearly 4-mile-long Dockweiler State Beach.

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A Los Angeles councilmember wants the Bureau of Sanitation to find out why more than a ton of medical and personal hygiene waste washed up on local beaches during last month's big rainstorm.

"It was both gross and disgusting," said Councilman Mike Bonin Wednesday. He wants to know if some 3,000 pounds of  tampon applicators, condoms and syringes that washed up on Dockweiler and other beaches came from the city's Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant or  an illegal dumper.

Normally, the 120-year old plant at Playa del Rey  above Dockweiler Beach treats about 280 million gallons of wastewater a day, pumping most of it into the ocean at the end of a five-mile long pipe known as an outfall.

September 15 was the first heavy rain of the season. So much water came in, the plant opened up an alternate one-mile drain pipe for the first time in about a decade.

Soon after, the medical and personal hygiene waste started washing ashore. 

On Tuesday, Bonin called for the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation to report to a council committee within three weeks about the source of the waste, the cleanup effort and strategies to prevent a similar occurrence if the predicted El Niño winter brings heavy rain.

"I want them to continue investigating the possibility that someone may have dumped stuff into the bay, see if they can do any forensic examination of the stuff, how old it was," Bonin said.

Bonin called the waste pollution a "teachable moment" during which the  city might do more to educate the public about not flushing needles, syringes, tampon applicators and condoms down the toilet.

Enforcement order by water regulators

The Bureau of Sanitation has what it calls a "working hypothesis as to how the floatable personal hygiene products that washed ashore"  got there, said spokeswoman Heather Johnson in a written statement provided Thursday.  "However, an extensive forensic investigation needs to be completed over the next few months before a more definitive answer can be found."

"The hypothesis is that most of the hygiene products had been floating or deposited in structures and pipes appurtenant to the one-mile outfall from previous incidents.  Those objects may have been flushed out during the emergency diversion and eventually washed ashore," Johnson wrote.

However, a more detailed description of how the beach might have been contaminated with waste appears in an Oct. 7 report of the Regional Water Quality Control Board. (See it below.) The board regulates waste discharges into local waters.

 On Oct. 8, the board ordered the city Bureau of Sanitation to submit a technical report describing the causes of the beach contamination.

The first signs of beach contamination were reported Sept. 15.

The report said two of the Hyperion plant's five pumps malfunctioned on Sept. 15 during the rainstorm.  The pumps flooded a basement and caused all five pumps feeding the five-mile outfall pipe to shut down. So the plant pumped wastewater down the alternate option -- a one-mile pipe. About 30 million gallons flowed through it over about five hours.

The one-mile pipe could have been spewing trash washed in from county beach parking lot sewers and storm drains, the report said. It's happened before. Trash was washed  into the pipe accidentally in 2006, but that time, the debris was held in at the end of the the pipe by a net.

Trash and medical waste from beach parking lot sewers and storm drains could have gotten into the pipe again this summer during a cleaning, the regional board report said.

Ironically, that parking lot and sewer cleaning this time was intended as preparation for a late September repair project that would require shutting down the five-mile pipe for six weeks and using the one-mile pipe instead.

The idea was to get the trash out of the sewers and storm drains so it wouldn't get into the one-mile pipe, however, the inlet to the one-mile pipe was not plugged or screened.

On Sept. 23, the city started its repair project and put the one-mile pipe into service. That was the day reports of medical waste along the high tide line of Dockweiler beach jumped. The city sent divers to check on a  3/4-inch mesh net on the ocean end of the one-mile pipe. They reported it been knocked loose. It was replaced the next day with finer netting.

Dockweiler and adjoining beaches were closed for two days.