The vast majority of El Segundo residents who applied to Los Angeles city for cash reimbursements meant to help them pay to escape an odor emanating from the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant have yet to receive any money, officials and applicants say.
El Segundo residents have dealt with a stench, which they say is often overpowering, since a debris backup caused nearly catastrophic flooding at Hyperion, crippling operations and requiring officials to send 17 million gallons of untreated sewage into the ocean to prevent the facility from going entirely offline.
Within a couple of weeks of the crisis at Hyperion, Los Angeles Sanitation & Environment, which operates the facility, launched a program to reimburse El Segundo residents for the cost of an air condition or air purifier, or a hotel stay because of the odor emanating from the plant. In the aftermath of the flooding, as Hyperion officials worked around the clock to make repairs, the nation’s largest water reclamation facility was unable to fully pump and treat the sewage coming in, which caused a build up of the foul-smelling sludge.
Officials in early August said they had repaired the plant enough to get it operating sufficiently, but added that it would take time to reduce the sludge build up. The hope, they said, was the odor would dissipate over time.
Handing out the reimbursements, meanwhile, has also taken time.
Los Angeles city has received more than 3,000 reimbursement applications as of this week, said LA Department of Public Works spokeswoman Elena Stern. About 2,500 of those have been for air conditioners or air purifiers; the rest have been for hotel stays.
Yet, as of this week, LA had issued 172 reimbursements, 158 for AC and 14 for lodging and expenses — totaling more than $160,800.
Approving the applications is time consuming, Stern said, because the agency must verify all the documentation and follow up with everyone. About half of the applications have been missing various pieces of information, including proof of residence, signed W-9 forms and complete receipts, Stern said.
LASAN said in a notice this week that applicants should expect to receive their checks within 6 to 12 weeks of the date the agency received the respective receipts and complete, accurate paperwork.
“We have worked with El Segundo to assist us in verifying residency, and with the City of LA Office of the Controller to streamline the verification process while still performing our financial due diligence,” Stern said. “We understand the frustration and appreciate everyone’s patience.”
But the delays, and the way the program is set up generally, have caused problems, some residents have said.
Tamara Kcheowski, who lives on Hillcrest Street in El Segundo, said the program was “ill conceived” because the reimbursements don’t pay for the increase in utility bills caused by running air conditioners all day and night.
Katherine Hatzikian, who lives atop a hill on the corner of Hillcrest and Maple Avenue, said she has a $3,800 credit card bill from hotels and other expenses she accrued while keeping her family away from home when the odor was at its worst. She hasn’t received her reimbursement — $184 a day for a hotel room, plus a per diem for meals — as interest charges on her credit card loom.
“They’re causing heartache and hardship,” Kcehowski said. “Not everybody has that kind of disposable income to wait for reimbursement.”
Stern, for her part, said offering to pay for things like increased utility bills has too many logistical challenges, such as requiring access to prior years’ utility data, analyzing usage increase and confirming that AC is the only reason for higher bills.
“This is a new program,” Stern said. “There was no funding, infrastructure, or procedure in place for reimbursements.”
The odors, meanwhile, remain a problem, residents have said, even though LASAN has said both air and water quality are improving — and harmful compounds are below state limits.
Hyperion workers have finished cleaning and making repairs to the plant as of this week, Stern said.
And most of the 11 fence-line monitoring locations show instantaneous hydrogen sulfide concentrations — an odor indicator — at either zero parts per billion or in the single digits, with elevated levels in a few spots because of equipment maintenance; the state’s hydrogen sulfide limit is 30 ppb exposure for 1 hour.
But earlier this week, the stench remained, although not as bad as a few weeks ago.
Hatzikian, whose backyard deck is about two football fields away from Hyperion, called the smell “bizarre” and “so hard to describe.” But that’s somewhat a good thing, she added, since initially the odor was like a “burning outhouse.”
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“You’d breathe really deep and feel pressure in your chest,” she recalled. “They should be compensating us daily for not being able to open our windows or go outside.”
Kcheowski, meanwhile, said she is already health compromised, with sensitive lungs and an upcoming surgery. The odor has exacerbated her breathing problems, she said, causing lung pain and requiring an inhaler.
She said she needs a purifier to ensure she’s healthy enough to go into her upcoming surgery.
But, Kcheowski said, the filters in the air purifiers the agency would buy aren’t sufficient, so she asked for a device with a carbon-dense filter.
A month after making the request, she said, Hyperion staff has asked for a doctor’s note to prove that she medically needs it.
“They’re just making it difficult,” Kcheowski said. “This is not just a nuisance or inconvenience, it’s an actual health issue for all us residents.”
El Segundo City Councilman Lance Giroux, like his constituents, said he is frustrated.
“I know this is a new program and this is unprecedented,” Giroux said. “But (LASAN) came into our council chambers and made these promises.”
The reimbursements, he added, are taking too long to come through.
“The longer things go,” Giroux said, “the more irritable everyone gets.”