Triple Bottom Line: When sh*t hits the water

A drawing of two sewage pipes with water draining into an ocean with a fish at the bottom
(Lauren Schatzman | Daily Trojan)

Most weekends, you can find me floating haphazardly in the lineup at El Porto beach in El Segundo — that is, when I’m not nosediving off my board or being pummeled by waves. However, I haven’t gotten much of a chance to show off my rather lacking surfing skills, thanks to recent events at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant.

The treatment plant, for those of you who aren’t up to date on urban wastewater processing, is the oldest and largest treatment facility in Los Angeles. It is designed to accommodate a maximum daily flow of 450 million gallons of water per day during dry seasons and 800 million gallons during wet weather. 

If you’ve seen the critically acclaimed cinematic masterpiece “Finding Nemo,” you’ll understand the basic premise here: All drains lead to the ocean. While this explanation is rather simplistic — most drains leaving a grid-connected house or commercial building go to a sewage treatment plant like Hyperion or, if leaving a rural area, a septic holding tank where it will be drained at a later date — the fact of the matter is that most water ends up in the ocean at some point.

To break it down into simpler terms, sewage lines from all over the city feed into the facility, where solids and debris are first removed from wastewater. The water is then treated with chemicals to remove remaining solids and organic matter. Lastly, removed biosolids are broken down by bacteria in digesters, creating a methane gas that is captured and used to power much of the plant’s processes. 

Finally, the fully treated wastewater — or, in science terms, effluent — is discharged into the Santa Monica Bay. Try not to think too hard about your (treated!) toilet water flowing into the ocean — the chemicals do a good job of neutralizing potentially harmful bacteria, and the system used to be a whole lot worse. Up until the 90s, the plant was blending treated and untreated effluent and pumping it straight into the bay, causing serious environmental and public health issues. 

In mid-July, the Hyperion plant discharged 17 million gallons of untreated sewage into the ocean near Playa Del Rey, causing extremely elevated bacteria levels. The plant became overwhelmed by large quantities of inflowing debris, and engineers were forced to release untreated water as an emergency measure to prevent the plant from going entirely offline and potentially discharging even more sewage. 

While I’ve been avoiding the Wavestorm-filled haven of El Porto after the initial spill, water quality reports showed that things haven’t been necessarily progressing for the better. Bacteria levels have remained suspiciously high with several beaches in the area remaining under warning or even closed, although public health officials and Hyperion representatives have insisted that this was unrelated to the spill. 

Although daily ocean bacteria levels can fluctuate due to a variety of factors, it turns out that the plant has been continuously leaking sewage into the ocean post-spill and is still due for at least a month of additional repairs to stem the flow and repair damage. Residents of the El Segundo area have experienced headaches, rashes and burning eyes from inhaling the noxious fumes from combusting leftover digester gas. I plan to keep avoiding my usual L.A. surf spots for the time being, but I did go to my regularly scheduled sunset-watching at Dockweiler Beach this past week and can confirm — the beach smelled particularly pungent. 

Without getting too technical, there’s a whole host of bacteria-related issues that could come from swimming in the waters post-spill. Water filled with decaying organic debris can siphon oxygen from plant and marine species that need it to survive, and excessive nutrients can cause eutrophication, leading to algal blooms that further decrease O2 availability. 

While it’s likely that the elevated bacteria levels aren’t something that you’d notice while swimming — bacteria is, after all, microscopic — there are potential long-term human health consequences of floundering around in untreated wastewater. Bacteria and disease-ridden pathogens can contaminate water and shellfish populations, as can detrimental trace metals and other pharmaceuticals that would otherwise be processed out at a treatment facility. 

The situation with Hyperion is not unique. Let’s be honest — there’s a whole lot going on in ocean water. Naturally occurring marine and biological waste aside, there are constant transgressions when it comes to wastewater management and what ends up going to the sea. While water should be thoroughly cleaned and pass rigorous standards before it’s dumped, this isn’t always the case. Ultimately, sewage treatment plants need to take more responsibility when it comes to water resources and in this case, how to adequately process wastewater. 

In a perfect world, the best way to prevent long-term ocean pollution issues is to stop them before they happen by investing in more comprehensive wastewater management operations. However, accidents are inevitable and cities need to have contingency plans in place. The city of El Segundo is now offering vouchers for AC units and hotels to those residing near the plant should the smell of combusting methane get too unbearable, but the situation at Hyperion is a perfect example of the consequences of environmental unpreparedness and a lack of transparency. 

Not only did it initially take public health officials nearly a day to notify the public that the beaches were unsafe for recreation, but there was also a delay in offering financial compensation to local residents dealing with day-to-day inconveniences. As days passed and bacteria levels remained concerningly high, the plant also downplayed the severity of the incident. Accidents happen, but accountability is crucial. Providing clear, accurate and timely information and options to the community is the responsibility and obligation of municipal agencies, especially when there are dire public health consequences at risk. 

Let me leave you with a few parting words of wisdom to bring things full circle — if you’re planning to go swimming at a beach in the South Bay area these days, don’t be worried about what’s in the vaccine. 

Montana Denton is a senior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society.