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California's Littoral of Toxic Waste

July 06, 1986|Rimmon C. Fay | Rimmon C. Fay is a marine biologist.

Degradation of coastal waters has been the norm for the past 50 years and all aspects of the marine environment have suffered as a result. Pollution may kill fish or poison people.

Toxic and hazardous wastes, their clean-up and control, are an unresolved issue in California both because of shortcomings in administrative leadership and inconsistencies in law.

For a time in the late 1960s, real progress was made. In 1970, the Clean Water Act was adopted, requiring secondary treatment in the form of biological processing or its equivalent for waste waters discharged from sewage plants to the streams, lakes and coastlines of this country.

In 1977, this act was amended to permit less than secondary treatment of wastes discharged to the ocean--if suitable administrative review was conducted and appropriate findings could be made to assure the protection of the quality of coastal waters. Since then, in partnership, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards issued or are considering variances to the requirements of the Clean Water Act, to allow primary treatment of wastes discharged to the ocean.

Primary may sound good but experts all over the world have agreed that primary treatment will not protect coastal resources. Here in California, the record shows that marine resources continue to be abused by the discharge of inadequately treated wastes. Fish are known to be contaminated with toxic wastes and these poisons are widespread throughout the ocean area of Southern California. Los Angeles fish markets advertise, "no locally caught fish are sold here." Charter boat operators and bait shop owners complain of lack of business as interest in local fishing is discouraged by reports of pollution. Even the Los Angeles County Department of Health has posted warnings against the consumption of some species of local fishes. Reports by fishery biologists note reproductive failure of fish in local waters resulting from contamination by toxic substances.

Variances from the requirement to implement secondary treatment are often awarded to waste treatment agencies already funded by EPA--and approved by the State Water Quality Control Board --to upgrade their facilities to achieve secondary treatment. This has occurred at Carlsbad, Oxnard, Goleta and Morro Bay. The funding for upgrading waste treatment has involved tens of millions of dollars, to achieve improved protection of the coastal environment.

Now the Environmental Protection Agency and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards have reversed their positions, to conclude that upgrading waste water quality was apparently unnecessary and that primary treatment will suffice. They now claim that the coastal environment will be protected against abuse from waste which is essentially untreated by a "rigid monitoring program" conducted by the waste discharger to assure compliance with the discharge permit. The discharger will provide information from this "self-monitoring" and transmit it to the water boards for review.

First, it is inconsistent to upgrade to secondary treatment and then downgrade to primary treatment. Second, no matter what the monitoring program indicates, the water-quality boards generally do not act on violations of their discharge permits. Examples include the failure to act against the city of Los Angeles' Hyperion Treatment Plant and the Chevron Oil Refinery in El Segundo. Officials of both the EPA and the regional water boards admit to inaction upon multiple violations of current permits and do not explain why repeated violations are allowed to continue.

Along California's coast, problems of contamination so far in 1986 have resulted in closure of beaches to swimming at Moonstone Beach and Encinitas. Notices of contamination have been posted--about fish in Los Angeles County and shellfish at Morro Bay. The decline of fisheries in San Francisco Bay is traceable to the presence of waste discharges. Chronic water quality problems plague Mission Bay, Los Angeles Harbor and Santa Monica Bay.

Meanwhile, both the EPA and the regional water boards continue to process and grant applications for primary treatment of sewage wastes from ever-expanding drainage areas in ever-increasing amounts as more development occurs in California. The cumulative result of permitting more waste to be discharged to the ocean is predictable. Increasing pollution will contaminate more beaches and cause the loss of additional marine resources.

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