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Climate and Environment

Post-Sewage Spill 'Sludge Blanket' Still Causing Foul Odor And Illnesses Around El Segundo

The Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant stretches about a mile along the El Segundo Coast
The Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant stretches about a mile along the El Segundo Coast.
(Chris Delmas
/
AFP via Getty Images)
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Five weeks after a catastrophic sewage spill at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, nearby residents are still complaining of a foul odor and resulting headaches, nausea, respiratory trouble, and skin irritation.

During a virtual community town hall Wednesday night hosted by the board of L.A. Public Works, LA Sanitation explained that the smell isn't coming from the sewage in the ocean, which had been released five miles off coast — too far for residents to smell — and had been diluted by the water.

Instead, the current odor is emanating from sludge that blanketed the works of the plant after the leak on July 11.

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Sludge Blanket

Normally the sludge, or the solid material that settles at the bottom of the water treatment tanks, would have been removed by pumps. But those pumps stopped working after the spill — which meant the sludge amassed and sat for weeks.

The result? Worsening water quality inside the plant, therefore worsening air quality outside it.

“We had no means of pumping that sludge out of the tank, so on a daily basis, they kept accumulating in the primary tanks,” said Plant Manager Tim Dafeta.

“It was pretty much the best of all bad options," he said. "We could not let the sludge go into the ocean, and we could not let it back into people's homes, so we had to figure out a way to retain it on site, get the equipment back into working condition.”

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L.A. Sanitation Chief Operating Officer Traci Minamide described it as a “sludge blanket”, and said it's slowly getting better now plant pumps are operational again.

Air Monitoring

El Segundo resident Corrie Zupa is still worried about the air quality and hopes for more consistent monitoring. Currently, officials mostly check when there are complaints, and use a mobile air monitor.

She and other residents would like regular monitoring at stationary locations, and a clearer explanation of what’s in the air.

Zupa’s worried about the prevalence of disinfectant chemicals.

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“We are asking the [South Coast Air Quality Management District], please do more for us,” she said. “We want stationary monitoring, and not just hydrogen sulfide but the cleaning products as well, because people are getting sick. I have heard from people with little children, and they've had to go to urgent care because they're throwing up or they're having rashes.”

The city is offering vouchers for hotel stays if the smell is overwhelming, but Zupa said she and her husband, who both work from home and have two young children, cannot make the move.

Denise Reich of Playa del Rey said she has C.V.I.D., which is primary immune deficiency. “I've been so sick since this happened that I ended up going for a COVID test, I ended up going for blood work, I ended up going through stool cultures, and I'm still waiting on the results of some of those, but my blood work is showing an increased white count,” she said.

“There are vulnerable people in this neighborhood, you have people with disabilities, you have people like me with compromised immune systems, Reich added.”

In addition to hotel vouchers, the city of L.A. is offering vouchers for air purifiers and air conditioners. But Reich said as someone with a disability and on a fixed income, she can’t afford the skyrocketing electric bill that comes with running the air conditioning 24 hours, as is recommended by city officials to combat the smell.

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Slow Recovery

The pumps became operational again on August 1 and started working on the weeks of stagnant sewage sludge. Air regulators reported a steady drop in complaints since the pumps started up again. But the work isn’t over yet.

Calls are still coming in daily, just now in the single digits instead of by the hundreds. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) said the most complaints received in a single day was 250 on August 2.

South Coast AQMD’s Jason Low noted that a bad smell does not always equate to toxins in the air. Air quality checks prompted by complaints did denote elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide and methane, both commonly associated with sewer gases. Repeat checks showed a return to normal levels.

A common solvent typically associated with cleaning products was detected, but was “well below any state health based standard," Low said.

High Level Of Urgency

The clean up must be completed as soon as possible for public safety, said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, who directs the toxics epidemiology program for the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

“While our noses are very capable of detecting these kinds of chemicals, even when they're very low, and sometimes even below our air quality standards, that doesn't mean they can't affect people,” he said.

“So the odors can cause real symptoms, and because they're real, this situation does need to be treated with a high level of urgency, as far as public health is concerned," Rangan added.

Even healthy people can have negative health reactions to odors that can be much worse for people with compromised immune systems, he said.

The flooding at Hyperion on July 11 resulted in a 17-million-gallon controlled sewage spill that exited into the ocean a mile off the coast. L.A. Sanitation said it has been monitoring the bacteria levels and the sewage plume in the water and has determined that any pollution has been diluted to safe levels.

The impact on marine life is too early to determine, although there has yet to be a toxic algal bloom caused by all the organic material from the sewage — an early concern after the spill.

The spill closed Dockweiler and El Segundo state beaches but notifications were slow to go out, and some swimmers and surfers unknowingly took a dip while the spill was still active. L.A. County Public Health apologized for the delay and pledged to improve communications with the public.

The backup at Hyperion was reportedly caused by an unusual flow of trash that clogged up all eight screens within the plant’s works. While there were rumors of construction materials and bicycle parts clogging up the system, the plant reports average paper and plastic trash, just in extraordinary abundance.

To report odors in the air around the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, call the 24-hour complaint line at 1-800-CUT-SMOG (1-800-288-7664) or online at www.aqmd.gov/complaints.

Anyone with symptoms is advised to see a medical provider immediately.

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