The successful reporting of sewage spills across Los Angeles County has skyrocketed in the past year, due to widespread reforms initiated by Supervisor Don Knabe in January 2007. The findings come in a newly-released report by the Los Angeles County Auditor-Controller and reveal that since Supervisor Knabe’s call for reforms last year, there has been a dramatic increase in the reporting of sewage spills to the County Public Health Officer.
The report shows that records of sewage spills increased 2,900%, from 26 in 2006 to 773 in 2007. It was also noted that the reporting of sewage spills of 1,000 gallons or greater increased 645%, from 11 in 2006 to 82 in 2007. In fact, the reporting of sewage spills during the calendar year 2007 exceeded the combined total of all sewage spills reported during the previous five years combined. During that period from 2002 to 2006, the County received only 87 sewage spill reports, compared to 773 for all of 2007.
These new findings were the result of an investigation and reforms called for by Supervisor Knabe last year after a number of large sewage spills along the Santa Monica Bay. The investigation led to an initial report last year that revealed massive failures in the reporting process of sewage spills and the ways in which the public is notified about those spills. The initial report found that since January 2002, over 11.6 million gallons of raw sewage had been spilled from wastewater treatment systems throughout the Santa Monica Bay Watershed in 208 separate sewage spills.
Of those spills, over 90% were never properly recorded by health officials, nor were records kept as to what was done to protect the safety and health of the public impacted by the spills.
The follow-up report released today by the Auditor-Controller was also the result of Knabe’s direction last year that a review of the new reforms needed to be made one year later to determine if the new protocols were working properly.
The results of last year’s investigation revealed numerous breakdowns in the communication system at every level of government and also turned up evidence of hundreds of sewage spills throughout the watershed since January 2002 that show no evidence of ever being recorded. The investigation was limited to sewage spills of 1,000 gallons or greater that occurred within the Santa Monica Bay Watershed from January 2002 through July 2006. The investigation revealed 208 sewage spills, totaling 11,606,986 gallons of raw sewage, within that area and time frame. Among the findings of the investigation were:
– Records did not exist for 189 of the 208 sewage spills or 90.8% of the spills that occurred in the past four and a half years. No records were ever found that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Environmental Health Program was ever notified or kept records of sewage spills by local wastewater agencies after they occurred. Additionally, these 189 spills have no record of cleanup efforts or efforts to notify the public of the health risk.
– Of the 19 spills that there are records for, they account for only 1.8 million gallons of the 11.6 million gallons spilled in the Watershed since January 2002. There are no records as to whatever happened to the other 9.78 million gallons of raw sewage spilled during that period, where it all went or what cleanup efforts were performed.
– The investigation revealed numerous failed communication protocols between local wastewater operators and public health crews within the County, including lack of understanding at the local level as to which agencies must be contacted immediately after a spill and lack of clear policies within the County about contacting first responders after normal business hours.
– The investigation also revealed that rules governing proper operation of sewage systems were vague and could result in improper operation of wastewater equipment.
As a result of the January 2007 investigation, Supervisor Knabe unveiled a number of reforms to immediately address and reform the sewage spill reporting process, as well as the impact of the public health and health of the environment these inactions may have caused. The newly-released follow-up report reveals that the County has successfully implemented 15 of the 16 recommendations and reforms, with the one remaining reform currently in progress.
Among the reforms was the successful passage of Assembly Bill 800, authored by Torrance Assemblyman Ted Lieu and sponsored by the Board of Supervisors. The new law requires that any entity responsible for a sewage spill now has the duty to report it to the local public health officer and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. In addition, fines will be imposed to any sewage treatment official who fails to promptly report a spill.
The results of this follow-up investigation are very positive, said Supervisor Knabe. It shows that there has been a dramatic increase in the communication between the operators of sewage treatment systems and the public health officials who are tasked with responding to sewage spills and ultimately keeping the public safe.
While there is a vast difference in the number of spills that are being reported now versus how many spills were going unreported before, we least now have a successful way to track spills and penalize those who don’t respond quickly. By having accurate information and records, we can respond quicker to these spills. In the end, that will hopefully lead to the most important goal of all: keeping the public safe and minimizing the harmful effects of sewage spills on our waterways, beaches, environment, and oceans.