Human error, equipment failures caused Hyperion sewage spillage


According to an official report from The Mal.

Although a full understanding of what triggered the Hyperion water reclamation plant crisis may never be fully established, the study’s authors said there was “little or no evidence” the failure was caused by a flood of concrete and wood , which were illegally dumped into the city’s vast sewage system — a claim originally made by sanitation officials.

The report, due to be presented to the Board of Public Works on Friday, sheds new light on an incident that left residents with rashes, headaches and nausea for weeks; spawned two lawsuits against sanitation officials; and sparked dozens of breach reports from regulators.

It also raises new concerns about the city’s ambitious plans to convert Hyperion into a full wastewater recycling plant by 2035, a move officials say is necessary to reduce the region’s reliance on imported water amid the returning drought.

All available evidence indicates that the spill was caused by a failure of equipment designed to remove plastic and large objects from incoming sewage and by factory workers who, according to the 52-page report that was produced Warning signs of rising sewage went unheeded by a committee of city officials, outside experts and environmentalists.

The outages resulted in torrents of sewage flooding the Playa Del Rey plant on July 11, destroying vehicles, shutting down pumps and electrical equipment, running workers for their lives and triggering one of the largest sewage spills off Los Angeles beaches in a decade .

Noting that the mishaps occurred on a dry summer’s day, the report said sanitation officials need to upgrade equipment and improve response protocols to ensure the plant can handle large flows of wastewater during heavy rains – a move seen as critical as climate change alters weather patterns.

“We will have wetter and more extreme floods. That’s going to put more pressure on any type of facility like this,” said Felicia Marcus, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and former chair of the state water board, who was a member of the reporting committee.

According to the report, senior sanitation officials need to be more vigilant when overseeing operations to prevent flooding, which could jeopardize efforts to upgrade Hyperion into a facility that recycles wastewater for groundwater recharge and purifies it for drinking water.

“The Bureau of Sanitation should assign managerial responsibility for the facility and the personnel upgrades needed to both quickly prevent future flooding and prepare Hyperion for the transition to a full wastewater recycling facility,” the report reads.

Sanitation officials have commended plant workers for their “valiant” efforts during the flooding, saying those actions would have prevented a much larger environmental disaster.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the LA Sanitation and Environment Department, which operates the facility, said the agency has already adopted some of the report’s recommendations and is awaiting the results of another study by consultants investigating the incident.

The report answers key questions about the flooding that caused 17 million gallons of sewage to flow into the waters off Dockweiler State Beach for more than 12 hours on July 11-12. It also contains recommendations for avoiding similar emergencies.

However, the report does not address some critical points, such as why plant operators responsible for monitoring incoming sewage did not respond to a visual alarm indicating rising sewage volumes that occurred more than an hour before the flooding began. The sewage, which enters Hyperion through a large sewer line, rose nearly a meter in just over two hours before the flood.

The report recommended improving control panels with audible alarms to warn staff more effectively.

The report also doesn’t address whether Hyperion officials were able to monitor in real time how much sewage was being dumped 50 feet underwater into the ocean through a 1-mile (1.6 km) emergency pipeline. The plant typically discharges treated wastewater at a depth of 190 feet via a five-mile pipe.

Los Angeles County health inspectors who responded to the facility on the evening of July 11 asked sanitation officials at least twice how much sewage was dumped into the ocean, but they didn’t get numbers until 9:30 a.m. on July 12 — more than 12 hours after being fired, according to incident logs obtained by The Times at the request of the California Public Records Act.

Loyola Marymount University professor emeritus John Dorsey, a wastewater treatment and watershed management researcher, said using flow meters for real-time information during an emergency is essential.

“It’s an emergency situation, so they need to know how much of it is going,” said Dorsey, who has done environmental monitoring work for the Hyperion facility.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health, which is responsible for issuing beach alerts, was criticized for waiting hours to notify lifeguards and the public that a massive sewage spill had occurred. Officials began closing Dockweiler and El Segundo beaches around noon on July 12.

The report acknowledged the need for improved communications to ensure county health officials have “real-time, comprehensive information, where available, needed to post notices and/or close beaches as soon as possible, when an emergency results in untreated sewage”.

Over the past five years, the city has invested $1.2 billion to improve the entire wastewater treatment system and more than $550,000 to modernize the Hyperion facility, officials said.

The upgrades included eight bar screens, each 22 feet high and 9 feet wide. The devices rake incoming wastewater and remove materials such as plastics, paper and other objects. According to the report, the bar screens installed in 2019 were among the failed devices.

The screens became clogged after a separate device used to shred plastic and other larger solid materials collapsed as sewage backed up at the Headworks building, where the sewage is initially processed, the report said. A key piece of equipment that removes the solid debris from the water was also out of service.

When more workers arrived around 4:30 p.m. to help two operators scrambling to fix the problems, the building was inundated with water, according to an earlier schedule provided by sanitation officials.

The rising water prevented workers from using a crane to remove a bulkhead weighing about 3 tons. That would have channeled water out of the building through an opening in the floor, the report said.

The workers had to flee for their safety when raw sewage flooded the building and began to flow onto the streets.

Seven months later, the effects of the flood are still being felt.

Each day, Hyperion sends a portion of its treated wastewater to a nearby facility operated by the West Basin Municipal Water District, where crews further treat the water for irrigation of green belts, parks, and other recycling purposes.

In the weeks following the flood, the Hyperion plant, in violation of its environmental permit, discharged wastewater with excessive levels of particulate matter, records show.

As a result, county officials said, they were forced to use potable water to mix with the recycled water. A West Basin spokeswoman said this week that the district still uses potable water to mix with the Hyperion sewage.

So far, the district has used 8,700 acres of potable water, or enough to power 26,100 average households for a year, according to spokeswoman Amy Rocha.

The sewage contamination is under investigation by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Agency, which said the Hyperion plant violated its environmental permit for several weeks after the spill and could have sanitation officials pay thousands of dollars in fines.

Two lawsuits alleging negligence were filed on behalf of residents of El Segundo by sanitation officials, who said they developed rashes, headaches and nausea from foul odors that lasted for weeks after the incident. Records show that regional air quality authorities reported 41 violations at the plant after the incident.

Susan Mecklenburg, a local resident involved in one of the lawsuits, said Thursday foul smells continue to occur in the neighborhood east of the facility.

“It still smells really bad,” she said. “We all feel that our hands are tied. We just live with it.” Human error, equipment failures caused Hyperion sewage spillage

Tom Vazquez

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