Environment & Science

2.4 million gallon sewage spill was LA's worst in 15 years

The Los Angeles River.
The Los Angeles River.
Umberto Brayj via Flickr creative commons

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Monday's pipeline break that spewed 2.4 million gallons of raw sewage — most spilling into the Los Angeles River — was the worst spill in the city in over 15 years.

It's unclear how much of that sewage made it to the ocean, but four miles of beaches in Long Beach remained closed Thursday after officials found high levels of harmful bacteria likely related to the spill in ocean samples.

Since 2000, the city of Los Angeles has managed to bring down the number of sewage spills by 85 percent. Back then there were 687 reported spills a year. Now there are 103, according to data from the city's Sanitation Bureau.

Bruce Reznik, executive director of L.A. Waterkeeper, said L.A. went from having one of the worst sewage spill rates in the region to one of the best. He says environmental groups like Waterkeeper deserve some of the credit for spurring the city to act by filing a 1998 lawsuit over the city’s abominable spill rate. The winter of 1998 was especially rainy, and the city averaged two sewer overflows a day.

Waterkeeper and L.A. Sanitation settled that lawsuit out of court in 2004. The terms of the settlement, which required L.A. to repair 60 miles and inspect 600 miles of sewer line a year, among other things, helped the agency make progress. Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director of L.A.’s Bureau of Sanitation, said L.A. spends $200 million a year upgrading and replacing its sewer lines, of which it has 6,700 miles total.

While the recent spill reminded Reznik of the old days, he hopes it’s an isolated incident.

“I think there’s been enough change in the city that this was an aberration,” Reznik said, adding that a 2.4 million gallon spill is still a major spill. “This is going to be a wake-up call to everybody to make sure we don’t fall back.”

Since Monday, sanitation crews have been cleaning up the L.A. River by pumping the water directly into the sewer system. From there it will flow through a wastewater treatment plant and back into the L.A. River.

Hagekhalil estimated that of the 2.4 million gallons spilled, 1.9 million made it out to sea.