Seventeen million gallons of untreated sewage was discharged into the Santa Monica Bay on Sunday after a power outage, officials said Monday night. The sewage has forced beaches across Southern California to close to the public this week.
Los Angeles County's largest and oldest sewage plant, Hyperion Water Reclamation, said Monday that it "became inundated with overwhelming quantities of debris, causing backup of the headworks facilities." The spill into Santa Monica Bay lasted for eight hours, where 6% of the plant's daily load was released, the plant said.
Plant officials said the massive discharge was "an emergency measure to prevent the plant from going completely offline and discharging much more raw sewage."
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued closures on Monday for El Segundo Beach, Grand Avenue Storm Drain, Dockweiler State Beach at Water Way Extension and Dockweiler State Beach at Hyperion Plant. Beaches will be reopened after water quality tests show the affected areas do not have an elevated level of bacteria. Until then, the department urged residents to "avoid contact with ocean water in the affected areas."
Plant officials said in the statement that the issue was resolved early Monday morning — but Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said she is still looking for answers.
"What happened yesterday was unacceptable and dangerous. Not only did the Hyperion Plant release seventeen million gallons of sewage into our ocean — the public had little to no information about it for hours," Hahn told CBS News in a statement. "We need answers from LA City Sanitation about what went wrong and led to this massive spill, but we also need to recognize that LA County Public Health did not effectively communicate with the public and could have put swimmers in danger."
Hyperion Water Reclamation directed CBS News to the Department of Public Works at LA Sanitation when reached for comment. A spokesperson for LA Sanitation told CBS News that the department notified the state's Office of Emergency Services within an hour of the plant's discharge. The spokesperson described the incident as "a very unusual occurrence."
"They actually diverted a much larger emergency, which is, if the plant had to go offline altogether," she said. "It would have been a real crisis."
Laura Deehan, state director of the nonprofit organization Environment California, told CBS News that the spill "should never have happened." She called for the passage of a clean water infrastructure bill that's currently moving through Congress, in order to ensure "our ability to live the California dream without worry of fecal matter making us sick or contaminating our surfboard or our kids' floating device."
The last major sewage spill in Los Angeles County occurred in 2015, when 30 million gallons of waste from city sewage was released into Santa Monica Bay by the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, according to the nonprofit organization Heal the Bay. The spill resulted in a $2.26 million settlement.
From 2020 to 2021, Heal the Bay reported 75 sewage spills in Los Angeles County, sending a total of 346,888 gallons of sewage into the area's bodies of water.
The group said that debris from spills can "harbor bacteria and can cause entanglement of wildlife," which is "extremely dangerous to people and can carry a variety of diseases."