Scientists agreed on Thursday that pollution in the ocean off the Southern California coast is serious but stood by earlier appraisals that the problem has been caused mainly by sewer outfalls and not old ocean floor dumps.
The deep-water dumps, which were used legally from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, were studied as far back as 1971 by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, which said at the time that it did not consider them a significant factor in ocean pollution.
Although the pollution problem is serious, there was general agreement Thursday among scientists that the marine environment is improving and that there appears to be no immediate threat to the public health. Ocean dumping of most toxics was outlawed in 1972.
The assessment by scientists and government officials followed a report by television station KCBS, which said that DDT, cyanide, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic substances were dumped in the ocean for two decades at an ocean burial ground 20 miles north of Santa Catalina Island and 11 miles west of the Palos Verdes peninsula.
Much of the information on the dump is contained in reports prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1971. Those reports, prepared by a private consulting firm, estimated that 10,500 tons of toxic industrial wastes were dumped at the site between 1947 and 1972.
Dumps Studied 12 Years Ago
In addition, 14 ocean-floor dumps, including the one mentioned by KCBS, were studied 12 years ago by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project. The study found that the dumps contributed less than 1% of the contaminants found offshore.
Lew Schinazi, chief of the surveillance section of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the dump sites are "no secret that's been kept by the regional board." He said that the history of the program is included in the board's records and that "those records are public records.
"Anyone who was interested in ocean dumping could look at them," he said. "There was never any intention to hide anything. It was just that it was thought to be a known fact that there was dumping going on in those early years."
Ellen Stern Harris, who served on the regional water board from 1966 to 1969, said the staff "bureaucracy" never informed the board members of the dumping. She called it an "outrage" and said that had she known about it, "there would have been hell to pay."
Schinazi said he does not believe that the dump sites are major contributors to the area's pollution, "based on the fact that fish caught in that area have been analyzed" and not found to contain high quantities of toxic substances.
He said, however, that representatives of "all interested agencies" will meet in his office today to discuss the situation.
David A. Brown, a biochemist who heads the chemistry program for the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, said evidence indicates that the old dumps account for only a small part of the pollution off the coast, contributing far less contamination than the area's sewage outfall systems.
Brown, one of the chief scientists in the project, which is supported by various governmental agencies, said current research indicates that the concentration of contaminants is far lower near the offshore islands than it is closer to shore.
"All the islands are fairly low compared to Palos Verdes, which has the highest concentration because of the outfalls," Brown said. "We've done many studies at all the islands out there, and we see no indications of high concentrations of contaminants."
Scientists working with Brown have examined sea animals and fish captured off the coast of Southern California, and they have determined that the level of contaminants was "directly proportional to the distance the animals were captured from Palos Verdes," Brown said.
That would indicate that the water near the outfalls is far more contaminated than the water near the old dumps, he added.
"At the western end of Catalina Island, we often find DDT at the lowest level of anywhere off Southern California," he said.
Brown emphasized, however, that pollution along the coast is a serious matter.
"We have known for a long time that there were serious problems along the coast, particularly as they related to Palos Verdes," he said. "But we have not seen evidence of a serious problem at the dump sites."
Willard Bascom, project director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, said Thursday, "There's no question that DDT discharges between 1968 and 1972 were really damaging. It really was an ecological disaster. No one has ever denied that.
"But you can't go on forever about what happened 12 years ago. The question is what is happening now, and what can you do about it."
EPA officials, as well as scientists, were in agreement that cleaning up the ocean dump site is not possible.