Report on 17M gallon sewage spill blames LA County Public Health for failing to quickly notify public

Multiple failures were cited in a newly-released report about the 17-million-gallon sewage spill that ultimately closed beaches from El Segundo to the southern end of Playa del Rey.

The report focused on Los Angeles County's inability to quickly notify the public of the raw sewage spill from July 11. Multiple communication failures were also cited in the report, and the timeline that emerged from the report was troubling.

Personnel members there reached out, as required, to the duty officer at the California Office of Emergency Services, according to the City News Service.


Below is the timeline of the events: surrounding the July 11 spill:

  • Around 2 p.m.: Too much trash began to block the system, which was so overwhelmed that it eventually flooded the plant itself.
  • Around 5:30 p.m.: Most employees are being evacuated.
  • Around 6:30 p.m.: Parking lot attendants at Dockweiler Beach begin reporting that raw sewage is coming out of the manhole covers. Trucks are contracted to clean up the mess. 
  • Around 8 p.m.: It’s clear that the material will have to be discharged via a one-mile-long pipe onto the ocean. That is when regulations require California Emergency Services to be informed. According to the Sanitation Department's Senior Information Director, Elena Stern, "as required under our permit to operate the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, we notified the State Office of Emergency Services in just over an hour of the emergency discharge, and they, in turn, notified the other public agencies." 
  • 9:30 p.m.: Inspectors attached at Hyperion

According to the report, inspectors notified the manager on duty, who "called in sick the next day" without passing on the message.

The next day, Sunday, July 12, lifeguards at Dockweiler beach noticed crews putting up beach closed signs around 10 a.m. and started making calls. At about noon, the Los Angeles County Board Supervisor Janice Hahn heard what is happening, and actually makes a courtesy call to the mayor of El Segundo, which borders the plant and the beach. It’s not even her jurisdiction, but she was concerned enough to let him know. 

No public notification is made until 5:30 p.m., Monday afternoon. 

Los Angeles County Public Health officials, including Dr. Barbara Ferrer, apologized at the Board of Supervisor’s meeting Tuesday, saying they are "looking into the breakdown in communications." 

El Segundo residents are being offered assistance, including some help with hotels and air conditioners, as the repairs in the plant will continue for about a month. The stench is pretty horrible, according to the residents who gave the most diplomatic description.

Drew Boyles, El Segundo’s mayor, can only shake his head. He will hear from plant officials at his next council meeting on August 17. 

"It’s not just the failure in communication, it’s how outdated the whole system seems to be," he said.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who ordered this report, wants more answers and more details, expecting a new report in 30 days. She asked, beyond the communication issue, how can solids block what is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated water reclamation plants in the country? 

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