A sewage spill from a broken pipe at the Hyperion Treatment Plant in East Palo Alto, California has been delayed by public health officials for fear of a public panic. The delay has caused people to question whether or not the plant is safe and what steps are being taken to ensure that it is.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. (CBSLA) – According to a study reviewed Tuesday by county officials, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health was mainly to fault for failing to inform the public more promptly of a 17-million-gallon sewage leak that caused the closure of beaches from El Segundo to Playa del Rey.
On July 13, 2021, soldiers of the United States Army National Guard examine the water at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey, Los Angeles County, California, next to a notice stating that the beach is restricted to swimming due to a sewage leak. (Photo courtesy of AFP/Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)
Workers at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, which is run by the city of Los Angeles’ sanitation department, followed procedure during the “once-in-a-career” July 11 incident, according to the study. The article went on to claim that their heroic actions rescued the facility in a “near miss” situation.
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According to an analysis by public consulting firm Citygate Associates LLC, plant personnel contacted the California Office of Emergency Services duty officer as required, but the state agency failed to communicate the severity of the problem to the other federal, state, and local agencies they were responsible for notifying.
However, according to the July 19 report, the deputy director of Public Health’s Environmental Health Program accepted full responsibility for the events that followed the emergency sewage discharge, and Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer apologized to the board on Tuesday.
She said her agency will issue its own report outlining the changes taken to prevent it from occurring again.
“There is no justification for this,” she added, referring to the department’s tardiness. “It’s simply failure after failure after failure.”
According to the report, the OES sent an email to Public Health at 8:11 p.m. on the day of the spill, stating that “most material was confined on site and ‘some’ had been discharged” into the outfall pipe, which Citygate said minimized the severity of the event. The identical email was sent to a variety of federal, state, and local government organizations.
The inability to promptly inform people of the leak was attributed to compartmentalized operations, outdated processes, and a lack of a single point of command and coordination within the Environmental Health Program, according to the study.
The consulting firm suggested a number of changes to improve emergency response, including requiring plant officials to notify county agencies as well as state agencies about incidents and doubling public education efforts to keep debris out of the sewage system, which is considered as important as drinking water and electricity.
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Plant employees originally thought they could manage the unusual quantity of big debris reported at about 2 p.m. without the need of a secondary containment system, according to authorities. Workers were forced out of the structure by “increasingly life-threatening conditions” before they could release a bypass plate that led to the containment system as the debris flow rapidly increased.
According to the report, workers placed filers on storm drains inside the facility in an attempt to collect as much solids as possible, but the flows got so high in the early evening that “approximately 50% of the plant was flooded and the secondary pump system was unable to keep up.”
The study did not say if the employees could have avoided the emergency discharge if they had handled the first debris flow differently.
The decision to start the emergency release into a one-mile offshore pipe was taken about 8:10 p.m., according to the report. When Environmental Health Program inspectors arrived at the facility at 9:30 p.m., they recognized a significant problem was developing, according to the report.
The initial beach closure warnings were not posted until noon on July 12 when Public Health administration was made aware of the scope of the issue — a five-hour delay caused by an employee who was off ill, according to the study — and took five hours to implement. The public was not informed until the mid- to late-afternoon.
After ocean water tests taken over a two-day period passed state requirements for acceptable water quality, the beaches were reopened five days after the leak, and affected homeowners were given financial compensation.
Within 30 days, Citygate is scheduled to provide an after-action report, which will contain more specific suggestions on new processes and practices.
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(CBS Broadcasting Inc., Copyright 2021, All Rights Reserved.) This article was written with the help of City News Service.)