Story of sludge

HyperionExamining a plan to inject the city's daily mountain of sludge into the ground under Terminal Island, CityWatch's Marc Haefele revisits past schemes to dispose of the treated (but still yucky) stuff that remains after the liquid is strained out of sewage. Sludge used to go into Santa Monica Bay along with the liquid, out a pipe that dumped into an undersea canyon a few miles off the giant Hyperion treatment plant at Dockweiler Beach. All that refuse dirtied the bay water, contaminated fish with chemicals and heavy metals, and even grew some weird mutations in the animal life on the sea floor. Most it now gets trucked to Kern County and spread on fields, but Haefele recounts my favorite harebrained scheme: the Hyperion Energy Recovery System to dry and burn sludge to create electricity.

Maybe the biggest and certainly the smelliest scam in LA’s public works history...About the only positive thing you could say about the HERS scam was no one profited from it, except assorted engineering contractors, of course.
The federal EPA the offered the city the chance to try out a new, “perfect” sludge disposal system based on a technology used to dry fish livers (I am not making this up), but unproven in the sewage biz. Fast forward: 20 years and 300 million (mostly federal and state) dollars later, the vast acreage of HERS technology at the Hyperion Wastewater facility was junked without transforming an iota of sludge.

Nowadays, that same sludge goes over the Tehachapis to some 10 square miles of farmlands, mostly in Kern County, where it fertilizes fields where the corn grows 12 feet high and is sold as cattle feed. A happy ending, the BuSan wonks have said. But the Kern folk felt otherwise, and last year passed an initiative banning sewage sludge on their farmlands. The city of course proposes to fight the ban. But meanwhile, they’ve got at least two backups: the first is another sludge farm further away in King’s County. The second is a plan to inject the stuff into rock and clay strata a half mile beneath Terminal Island. This is to start late this year.

I reported on HERS and related issues a lot at the time and find L.A.'s hidden (and deteriorating) infrastructure a fascinating topic. I'm not alone. Former Bureau of Public Works spokeswoman Anna Sklar is writing a history of the Los Angeles sewers, partly with a grant from the Los Angeles City Historical Society.

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