The Brown Room
Rumor has it that when, sometime on the late 70s, a certain publisher of a major Los Angeles newspaper was chairing a meeting in the company boardroom, a young intern entered the room quickly and whispered something in his ear. “Surf’s Up” was all the publisher needed to end the gathering abruptly, sprint downstairs, and head due west from Downtown L.A. to a private men’s club right on the beach in Santa Monica.
But the publisher soon learned the surf was not the only thing that was up that smoggy summer day in the late 70s. The waves had a distinctively brown hue, a fact that the publisher noted when he found himself, less than an hour after hearing those fateful words uttered, surfing within the curl of an unusually large wave. Commonly referred to as “The Green Room,” the publisher cringed at the thought of being swallowed by what was instead something quite a bit browner; he managed to propel himself out just before the wave came to its crashing conclusion. Word on the sand was that this discoloration of the sea was due either to the unusually rough surf or a robust colony of phytoplankton that visits the beaches of Southern California every year and turns the waves a reddish brown. However, later that evening, as he sipped a draft beer at a table overlooking the surf, the absence of phosphorescence that accompanies such “red tides” disquieted the publisher. And when an ear infection established itself over the next few days, the conclusion was inescapable: there was shit in that thar sea.
Even before the founding of the city in 1781, wastewater from the small Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles was conveyed from the center of town to the Los Angeles River to the ocean. In 1892, the city purchased 200 acres of oceanfront property near the mouth of the L.A. River, which at that point was just north of Playa del Rey, what is now Ballona Creek. From 1894 until 1925, raw sewage was discharged directly into ocean waters just a few hundred yards from the breaking surf.
In the 1920s, after public outcry from residents and visitors to the beaches of Santa Monica Bay, the city of Los Angeles built the first facility at the Hyperion site a mile south of the LA River which was a simple screening plant separating liquids from solids. During World War II, several miles of beach in front of the plant were quarantined because of near-shore discharge of what was still essentially raw sewage.
After the war, plans for a full secondary treatment plant at the Hyperion site were developed, eventually funded, and built. When the new Hyperion Treatment Plant opened in 1950, it included full secondary treatment that processed biosolids into heat-dried fertilizer, using anaerobic digesters to produce methane. And although it was one of the most modern facilities in the world, it could not keep up with the pace of growth throughout the region. By 1957, the new plant stopped its biosolids-to-fertilizer program and began discharging digested sludge into the Bay through a separate seven-mile ocean outfall. In time this discharge grew to 25 million pounds of wastewater solids per month and it this constant river of under-treated sewage began to take its toll on the marine life in Santa Monica Bay. Samples of the ocean floor where sludge had been discharged for 30 years demonstrated that the only living creatures were worms and certain hardy species of clam.
But it wasn’t until surfers like our newspaper publisher started complaining of sinusitis, eye and ear infections, and a variety gastrointestinal illnesses that the general population began to take serious notice. In 1985, the group Heal-The-Bay was formed by activist Dorothy Green to address the declining state of water quality in the bay. She marshaled enough support to file a lawsuit which resulted in a consent decree in which the city of Los Angeles agreed to comply with the Clean Water Act of 1972.
To meet the requirements of that landmark act, the city of Los Angeles launched a construction program costing almost 1.5 billion dollars to totally upgrade the facilities at the Hyperion Treatment Plant. The goal was to stop the flow of sewage into the Santa Monica Bay. The mechanics of the treatment process are as follows: Coming from residential, commercial and industrial sources throughout the Los Angeles Basin, raw sewage enters the Hyperion Treatment Plant where it first encounters the Headworks which act as a primary filter, removing larger debris such as bottles, cans, sticks, etc. Rocks and sand are then filtered next in Sedimentation Tanks. This collateral material is then cleaned and trucked to landfills on a daily basis. The wastewater continues onto Primary Treatment, which are underground tanks the size of football fields where chemicals are added to help the settle solid matter.
After oil and grease are skimmed off the top the solid waste is separated from the liquid waste and sent to Digesters. The liquid waste then goes onto Secondary Treatment where virtually pure oxygen and tons of microorganisms are pumped in to consume whatever organic material is left after Primary Treatment. When the feeding frenzy is finished, the wastewater is directed to Clarifying Tanks where it is allowed to sit for the several hours it takes for the microorganisms to settle to the bottom. Once this happens 90-95% of solid material has been extracted from the wastewater, which makes it clean enough to be discharged into the Santa Monica Bay at a point 5 miles out to sea, at close to 200 feet below the surface. A portion of the micro-organic solids gathered at the bottom of the Clarifying Tanks are then sent to the Digesters where they rejoin those solids extracted in Primary Treatment, while the rest are reintroduced into Secondary Treatment to begin work on the next batch of wastewater.
It’s in the Digesters that the most interesting action takes place. The solids extracted during Primary and Secondary Treatments are pumped into giant egg-shaped tanks where they sit, without oxygen, for fifteen days. This is where certain bacteria and other microorganisms thrive, consuming up to half of the biosolids, killing disease-causing pathogens such as giardia and hepatitus, and releasing methane, which is then itself harvested to power the system.
The remaining biosolids are then run through a centerfuge to remove as much water content as possible. With the treatment process now complete, the biosolids now have the consistency of toothpaste and are ready for their final destination, whatever that may be.
In 1987 when this treatment process was up and running, biosludge from Hyperion stopped flowing into the ocean. As a result, life returned to the Santa Monica Bay – fish populations restored themselves, kelp beds regrew; and surfers returned, this time without biohazard wetsuits. And except for the occasional equipment breakdown or the periodic flushing of storm drains that comes with the more substantial rains, the Santa Monica Bay remains essentially bacteria free. With the Santa Monica Bay now clean, the city of Los Angeles faced a new dilemma: what to do with an ever-increasing backlog of biosolids. Before 1987, biosolids were dispersed directly into in the ocean. Compliance with the consent decree mandated that the city cease this operation. With options running out, the city fell back on an old solution: stuffing landfills with biosludge. But in 1989, after even this provoked public outcry, the Bureau of Sanitation launched a “beneficial reuse program” that offered the ”humanure” to any and all who were interested. The hope was that the agricultural interests in the counties surrounding Los Angeles would leap at the chance to have virtually free fertilizer. But oddly enough, it has proven to be a hard sell. So the city of Los Angeles turned to the 4200-acre Green Acres Bio-Farm it owns in Kern County where approximately 97% of biosolids are now land applied.
Unsurprisingly, Kern County has found the prospect of spreading human waste over its fields distasteful and has attempted to enact a ban on it, citing presumed health concerns. At first upheld by a Kern County Court, the ban is currently on hold, pending further studies. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stands behind the program, calling biosolids the ultimate Renewable Resource. Undaunted by the criticism of this program he has gone on to embrace another plan that proposes to pump biosolids into depleted oil fields a mile below the city’s Terminal Island Treatment Plant. He calls the process, which will produce enough methane to power energy to 3000 homes, an example of how he plans to make Los Angeles the greenest city in America.
Long after he recovered from his ear infection, our newspaper publisher decided to end his quarter-century reign over the paper and move up north. Part of this was due to his pending divorce, part due to endless acrimony within the family-owned business; but - rumor has it - a large reason for the move was the fact that, despite his best efforts to transform Los Angeles into something resembling a metropolis, he saw the city decomposing, degrading, falling apart: its skies a thick yellowing haze; its people depressed, malaisestricken; its seas ripe with sewage, ebbing and flowing, dying.
Fortunately, our mayor seems to be more optimistic, seeing beyond our brown past to a green future.