From Oil Spills to Movie Stills, They See it All

“There’s been a toxic spill in the San Fernando Valley.”

“I’m calling to report 10 leaking, abandoned drums near the Port of Los Angeles.”   

“I’m seeing a milky substance flowing into the street and it smells really bad – like chemicals!”

Every month the City’s Stormwater Hotline receives hundreds of calls just like this – people reporting illicit discharges, abandoned hazardous waste, illegal connections to the storm drain system – and LA’s stormwater inspectors respond to them all. The Department of Public Works Watershed Protection Division’s stormwater inspectors are mandated with protecting the public health and the environment. “We are on call 24/7 to respond to environmental emergencies,” explains Chief Stormwater Inspector Steve Pedersen.  “Just last week a few of my inspectors and I were up until 4 a.m. responding to an illegal spill.”

For more than a decade, from the shores of Venice Beach to the foothills of Lakeview Terrace, 20 stormwater inspectors have patrolled Los Angeles’ densely populated communities. By being both teacher and enforcer, inspectors work to stop the contamination of urban runoff flowing into catch basins and storm drains. Abandoned hazardous waste, toxic spills, chemicals, animal waste, and petroleum become a filthy soup of pollutants that flows unchecked into the Pacific Ocean. “Polluted urban runoff that flows into our municipal storm drain system is exactly the same when it reaches the ocean,” explains Inspector Gonzalo Barriga. “People need to realize that the beach really starts inland, in their neighborhoods.”

Chief Inspector Pedersen describes an inspector’s daily duties, “Our routine site inspections of businesses range from ‘mom and pop’ stores to huge refineries employing hundreds of people. An inspectors’ ultimate goal is to ensure that businesses comply with Los Angeles Municipal Code 64.70. If a business is unwilling to comply, then we then become the enforcer. Penalties for violations can be fines of up to $1,000 a day and jail terms of up to six months.” This past May, Los Angeles received a $1.75 million settlement from Crimson Pipeline Management, Inc. for a case involving a large oil spill in Wilmington in 2010. And, LA’s stormwater inspectors were essential in the investigation, which led to the largest settlement ever received, in either a civil or criminal case, involving an oil spill violation. Earlier this month, stormwater inspectors were vital team members of Operation Healthy Streets, a three-week clean-up effort in downtown Los Angeles that focused on cleaning streets infested with human waste, hypodermic needles and rats. At the end of the operation, LA Sanitation cleaned up more than five tons of refuse from streets.

A story about stormwater inspectors in LA wouldn’t be complete without a Hollywood connection. As the inspectors patrol the city, their days can often present an unexpected surprise, like a crew filming, either legally or illegally, in a storm drain. “An area that we patrol on a regular basis is the Los Angeles River. Because of its unique appearance, many feature films have been shot here – Grease and Terminator 2,” says Inspector Barriga. “Every day is different. We never know what we’ll be called to clean up or investigate, or how long the day will be.”

From oil spills to movie stills, they see it all.

Photos courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works and der krampus.

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