Delayed alert to massive beach sewage spill raises alarm

After 17 million gallons of raw sewage were discharged into the ocean off Los Angeles beaches early Monday, county officials waited hours before notifying the public to avoid swimming in areas potentially affected by high levels of bacteria.

The delay occurred even though officials from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which is responsible for notifying the public, were at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in Playa Del Rey during the emergency discharge procedure that began Sunday evening and ended Monday around 4:30 a.m., according to interviews.

Public health officials posted a beach closure advisory on their website urging residents to avoid swimming at Dockweiler and El Segundo beaches and shared the notification on Twitter at 5:30 p.m. Monday — a process that officials and environmental experts say put the public at risk and needs to be improved.

“A press release posted on the L.A. County Department of Public Health webpage is not good enough,” said Shelley Luce, president and chief executive of Heal the Bay. County officials should have begun informing the public early Monday via social media, she said. “It’s time for a better protocol.”

Julio Rodriguez, a captain with the county Fire Department Lifeguard Division at Dockweiler Beach, told The Times that his crews found out about the beach closure around noon — after seeing an unknown county worker posting a sign on a lifeguard tower.

“That’s how we received official notification of the closure of the beaches,” he said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said Tuesday that she was seeking answers from county health officials and the city, which operates the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant.

“What happened yesterday was unacceptable and irresponsible,” Hahn said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Department of Public Health said the agency was in the process of gathering information on its notification process and protocols.

Timeyin Dafeta, executive plant manager at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, said an investigation was ongoing, but his crews had ruled out human error or mechanical failures.

He said construction materials, including wood chips and pieces of concrete, along with paper and grease, clogged the filtering screens. The materials were either flushed down a toilet or dumped in a maintenance hole somewhere along the city’s 6,700 miles of sewage pipes, he said.

He said crews tried replacing the screens and diverting water but were forced to begin discharging the sewage through the emergency pipe around 7:30 p.m. Sunday to avoid a “catastrophic situation.”

Plant crews alerted the state Office of Emergency Services at 8:10 p.m., and the state notified the county Department of Public Health, which sent officials to the plant at 2 a.m., according to Dafeta.

The discharge — which represented about 6% of the facility’s daily load — was the largest emergency procedure conducted at the Hyperion plant in a decade, officials said.

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