SACRAMENTO — Three years after elevated levels of toxic chemicals were detected in fish in Wilmington's Harbor Lake, state officials have launched a study to pinpoint whether South Bay storm drains are the source of the pollution.
Taira Yoshimura, an environmental specialist with the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles, said that a maze of channels and sloughs funnels runoff into the lake, which is owned by the city of Los Angeles.
"That's the way most of the water and the sediment would be conveyed to the lake, so that's the most likely suspect," Yoshimura said.
The 100-acre lake and surrounding recreation and picnic area near Pacific Coast Highway and Vermont Avenue attract scores of people on weekdays and hundreds of visitors on weekends.
After The Times reported in 1983 that no agency was monitoring fish caught at Harbor Lake, the Regional Water Quality Board started an annual program to test samples of fish there. They found high levels of DDT, a banned pesticide; PCBs, a group of suspected cancer-causing synthetic lubricants, and chlordane, a now-restricted insecticide.
Levels of pollutants remained high in samples collected in 1984 but declined below federal safety limits by 1985, according to test results released last week. However, state scientists cautioned that the 1985 sample of a single carp and a single catfish was too small to make any sweeping conclusions.
"I don't think I can say things are getting better or worse," said Bruce Agee, an environmental specialist with the state Water Resources Control Board.
Yoshimura has started to collect samples from the silty lake bottom and plans to dredge up more sediment from the storm drains. Attempts to determine the source of the pollution had been stalled until the state found a laboratory that could analyze the sediment, Yoshimura said. The analysis may not be completed until next year.
Even then, local officials say, cleaning up the lake will be difficult because eight local, state and federal agencies share authority over the popular recreation spot.
In addition, since the pollution was detected, other environmental problems have surfaced at the lake. Mosquitoes breed in the dense tules growing there and pose the threat of an outbreak of encephalitis. At the same time, efforts to eradicate mosquitoes could threaten a breeding area for the endangered least tern.
Susan Prichard, the Harbor City field deputy for Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, complained that she has "run around in circles" trying to resolve these issues.
"There are . . . different organizations that have competing interests in the lake," Prichard noted. "The city is held ultimately responsible, yet we can't do anything without the cooperation of the . . . other agencies."
Among the interested parties are the city Department of Parks and Recreation, the county Health Services Department, the county Flood Control District, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state Water Resources Control Board, the state Department of Fish and Game, the state Health Services Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Sometimes one agency does not know what another is doing at the lake.
For example, state health and Fish and Game officials published a warning about eating goldfish and carp from the lake after the 1983 and 1984 tests. Gerald A. Pollock, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health Services, said it was then the county's responsibility to take any additional steps.
However, Leonard Mushin, chief of the county Health Services Department water pollution section, said he is unclear about what the county's role is supposed to be at Harbor Lake, and he is unaware of any research done at the lake beyond the original 1983 fish study.
"There isn't the kind of coordination you're presuming," Mushin told a reporter last week. "There are obviously some gaps."
Now, another state agency, the Coastal Conservancy, is seeking to include the lake in its jurisdiction. A measure that would permit the conservancy to improve the water quality and waterfowl breeding areas at the lake was approved by the Senate Natural Resources Committee on a 7-1 vote Tuesday and sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The conservancy would consider spending about $500,000 at the lake from state bond issues.
"We feel that Harbor Lake is of statewide importance, not just local importance," Wendy Eliot, a conservancy analyst, said in an interview. "There are a dwindling number of wetlands, and freshwater wetlands, such as Harbor Lake, are exceedingly rare."
The 1983 study by the regional water quality control scientists found, among other things, 1.9 parts per million and 2.2 parts per million of chlordane in two goldfish tested. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers 0.3 parts per million to be unsafe in food, Yoshimura said.