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The Big Spill

WHEN 2 MILLION GALLONS OF SEWAGE bubbled up into the streets, back yards and beaches of L.A. County’s South Bay cities on Sunday, it was most likely the fault of a series of pumps, sensors and warning systems that failed in concert — a confluence of mishaps that may say something about the state of the county’s sewer systems. “Clearly the pumping plant was not maintained and inspected on a regular basis,” says Heal the Bay executive director Mark Gold. “You had a lot of things happen that should never, ever, ever happen.”

If it’s any consolation, those things that should never happen have been happening all over the country: In its 2005 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a D-minus on the state of its wastewater infrastructure; California alone has a $14.4 billion backlog in sewer repairs. In recent years, millions of gallons of raw waste have poured into the San Diego Bay and the Santa Ana River and San Francisco’s Baker Beach. Gold acknowledges that L.A. County has made significant improvements to its sewer systems since the 1997-1998 El Niño backed up sewers from East L.A. to Eagle Rock, but there’s still a lot left to be done — including instituting better beach monitoring on weekends and upgrading the county’s public-notification system.

“From our perspective, the response from the standpoint of public notification and monitoring was beyond belief,” says Gold. “The Health Department didn’t go out after the spill. The city of L.A. doesn’t monitor on weekends. So all of the monitoring was from L.A. County Sanitation — the polluter that’s supposed to be fined by the volume of the spill.” On top of that, L.A. County Sanitation seems to have kept the news to itself as long as it could. “Myself and the head of Baykeeper are supposed to be called as soon as there’s a spill,” says Gold. “And we, like every other sap in this town, found out about it by reading the news. We thought those days were over. But they’re not.”

—Judith Lewis