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As Hyperion sewage spill worsened, communications failed

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Multiple failures in communication between Los Angeles city and county agencies delayed crucial public warnings and a full emergency response to a massive sewage discharge earlier this month at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, according to a report obtained by The Times that was discussed Tuesday by county officials.

The report provides new details regarding plant flooding and the evacuation of staff just before an hours-long discharge of 17 million gallons of raw sewage into the waters off Dockweiler and El Segundo beaches July 11 and 12. The findings also show that key city and county first responders, including fire and lifeguard personnel, were not informed that the emergency incident had occurred until hours later.

“The handling of this [sewage] release and the necessary public notification were failures,” said the seven-day after-action report prepared by a private contractor for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The Times previously reported that county public health officials waited hours to inform the public to avoid swimming in the areas exposed to the sewage release and that lifeguards found out only after seeing county workers posting closure signs at the beach, findings that were corroborated by the report.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who requested the report, said city officials who operate the Hyperion plant have yet to provide sufficient details regarding the emergency discharge, but added that much of the failure lies with the county’s Department of Public Health.

“What is at issue today is the failure of the county during this emergency to close the beaches and keep the public safe from potentially dangerous water,” Hahn said in a statement. “Our failure to get that done raises a lot of questions, and the public needs answers.”

During the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday afternoon, county Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer acknowledged her agency’s failure to notify the public in a timely manner and to close the affected beaches sooner.

“I want to start by apologizing to the board and the public for our failures in responding,” she said. “There aren’t any excuses.”

Ferrer said public health officials are moving to adopt recommendations in the report, including improving training and upgrading communication protocols with the public and other agencies.

“We dodged a bullet,” Hahn said during the meeting, noting that water samples taken after the incident showed that bacteria levels were within state standards for acceptable water quality.

Operations at the Hyperion plant have come under heightened criticism by local officials and neighbors who say that sanitation officials have provided insufficient information about potential dangers to the public and marine life. Residents in adjacent El Segundo have complained about continuing foul odors coming from the plant, as well as nausea, rashes and burning eyes.

Officials with the L.A. Sanitation and Environment Department, which operates the facility, have apologized to El Segundo residents and offered to reimburse them for hotel vouchers and air conditioners. Sanitation officials lauded plant workers for their “valiant” effort to prevent a much larger environmental disaster .

The county report acknowledges the work of the Hyperion crews and notes that plant officials notified the state, as required, but it also faulted plant officials for not informing key local agencies.

“The plant notification process needs to be improved so that direct notification is sent to local city and county stakeholders” at the same time the state is notified, said the report, which found that neither city fire nor emergency management personnel “had any awareness of a problem at the plant.”

Elena Stern, a spokeswoman for the city’s Sanitation and Environment Department, said Tuesday that the agency has already been working with officials from other departments to address the findings of the report and improve public notifications.

L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin — who has asked sanitation officials to provide details regarding emergency protocols, plant maintenance and response to the emergency — said Tuesday that the report’s findings were “extremely troubling and underscore the need for a full, transparent accounting of what happened during and in the aftermath of the sewage spill.”

“It’s very clear that the city and county need to find a better way to work together to ensure this never happens again,” Galperin said in a statement.

Brett Morrow, a spokesman for the county Department of Public Health, said the agency repeatedly asked officials at the Hyperion plant how much sewage had been discharged, but they were unable to confirm the amount until about 10 a.m. July 12 — more than 14 hours after the flooding at the plant began.

The report noted that county health inspectors were at the plant during the nighttime on July 11 and were able to witness the magnitude of the emergency.

The county report also faulted public health officials for failing to return phone calls and emails from county agencies seeking information about the discharge and for providing “incomplete or inaccurate information” to the county Office of Emergency Management.

Stern said Hyperion officials are not able to track real-time discharge flows, but hourly overflow records obtained by The Times show that nearly 3 million gallons of sewage had been directed into the ocean by 9 p.m. July 11. The sewage discharge began to slow by 6 a.m. the next morning and ended at 8:33 a.m., according to the records, which were compiled after the incident.

During the emergency operation, Hyperion officials discharged sewage through a one-mile pipe 50 feet under the water. The plant normally discharges wastewater 190 feet down, using a five-mile pipe.

The county report said that around 2 p.m. July 11, large amounts of trash began to overwhelm screens in the Hyperion Headwaters Building, where debris such as branches and plastics are cleared from the sewage.

“By late afternoon,” the report said, “the debris flow had completely overwhelmed the headwaters building, requiring the evacuation of personnel due to increasingly life-threatening circumstances.”

Crews in the headwaters building could have used a diversion bypass plate to direct sewage into treatment tanks at the facility but believed they could manage the problem. However, the growing debris flow drove crews from the building before they could open the diversion plate, according to the report.

By evening, the sewage flow was so bad that about half of the plant, which sits on about 200 acres across from Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey, was flooded with sewage, according to the report.

The sewage overflowed through a grate or maintenance hole near the Dockweiler parking lot and began spilling into the lot. County and city crews responded to clean up that area, but because of a breakdown in communication, the county Department of Beaches and Harbors was apparently unaware that a major sewage discharge was underway, according to the report.

“It does not appear that B&H Department leadership knew Sunday evening that the parking lot incident was more than just a small, localized spill since they did not even notify the County Fire Lifeguards,” the report said.

About 8:55 a.m. the next day, lifeguards at Dockweiler were told by a bicyclist that a spill had occurred in the parking lot area, according to the report.

“The Lifeguards started inquiring to all their partners but for hours could not obtain effective spill or response information,” the report said.

Shortly after noon July 12, the report said, lifeguards found out that raw sewage had been discharged — after seeing a county health inspector post “Beach Closed” signs on lifeguard towers.




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