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Santa Monica Bay Blues

August 17, 1986|JILL STEWART | Jill Stewart is a Times staff writer.

A conversation with marine biologist Rimmon C. Fay, 57, owner of a marine specimen supply firm, an ex-member of the state Coastal Commission and a leader in the fight against pollution in Santa Monica Bay. Los Angeles officials have agreed to spend $2.3 billion to improve treatment of toxin-laden sewage the city dumps in the bay, which is being considered for the federal Superfund cleanup list.

Q: You were one of the first marine biologists to explore the waters of Santa Monica Bay. What was the bay like before pollution took hold? A: I grew up here on this bay and learned to swim in it at the age of 5. My recollections as a child were (of) clear water, blue water. I can remember the kids a few years older than I diving for coins off the Venice pier. The water was clear enough that they could see the coins we would throw into the water. There were kelp beds--tremendous kelp beds--all through Santa Monica Bay. And growth on things like pier pilings--the mussels were nearly a foot thick or maybe greater. And, of course, the birds, pelicans especially, thousands resting on the piers and the breakwaters. It was clear and clean and abounding in life. And then there was an abrupt change: The appearance of the chlorinated hydrocarbons--DDT and the PCBs. The appearance of heavy metals in the late 1940s, early 1950s. And, of course, what happened was that things failed to reproduce. It was an across-the-board failure in reproduction--everything from algae on through all the invertebrates and fish and into the birds and marine mammals. Q: Your first big victory in the fight to protect the bay was in 1970. How did that come about? A: It was quite curious. For years I was bitterly and openly frustrated by the state Department of Fish and Game, which had not aggressively pursued water-pollution problems here. Although some members of the department were hostile toward me for my outspoken disappointment in them, other members of the department provided me with information that they dared not make public themselves. A portion of this information indicated that DDT concentrations in the fish in Santa Monica Bay were the highest ever determined in any fish anywhere in the world. And I didn't know what to do about it. Here I am, an independent fisherman, and I've got this truly explosive piece of information.

I happened to be talking to a client of mine, and he said, "Why don't you call the Environmental Defense Fund? They just got DDT outlawed in Wisconsin." EDF put me in contact with Los Angeles attorney Norman Rudman, who at EDF's request filed suit (an injunction). And within two weeks we had a stipulated agreement that Montrose Chemical (the company ultimately blamed for dumping the lion's share of DDT--hundreds of tons--into county sewers) would stop discharging the DDT into the ocean.

Because it went on for more than 20 years, it's been described as the worst documented case of marine pollution that's occurred anywhere in the world. And we're still seeing the effects of that. Q: But only in the past few months have L.A. city officials acknowledged that the bay is polluted. Why did it take so long? A: (Laughs.) You ask me that as a reporter for a newspaper that has profited enormously from land development, from a real estate section, from all of the tremendous activity here that's resulted in this becoming the most intensively developed desert in the world.

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