Crowds of beachgoers swam and played in the surf off Santa Monica Beach on Monday, ignoring, for the most part, the warnings of about 200 environmental activists who staged a protest at the outlet of the Pico-Kenter storm drain.
Heal the Bay, an environmental group claiming about 600 members, is trying to draw public attention to beach pollution and put pressure on politicians and industry to stop it.
The Pico-Kenter drain is one of nine in the Santa Monica Bay designated by the county Health Department as having unhealthy levels of coliform bacteria, which are present in human and animal fecal matter. The outlet sites are posted with signs that read: "Caution: Contaminated Water."
Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) and Santa Monica Mayor Christine Reed joined the group that gathered on Labor Day in front of the Pico-Kenter drain, which Santa Monica police had marked off with yellow plastic tape.
'Slap on the Wrist Isn't Enough'
"We need to penalize polluters," Rosenthal said. "Just a slap on the wrist isn't enough if they continue to pollute. For a short-term solution we need to close the area completely around the drain with a fence."
Hayden said he used to let his children play in the runoff from the Pico-Kenter drain until about eight years ago, when he began hearing of skin diseases and cancers thought to be caused by toxins in the bay.
Dorothy Green, Rimmon Fay and other leaders in the Heal the Bay group are asking for a building moratorium on any facilities that would add to the load carried by the sewers until facilities can be built to stop the spill of raw sewage into the bay. They say that during the past year raw sewage was dumped into the bay at least 15 times.
They also are asking for fences around the storm-drain runoff areas.
In a short speech Monday, Hayden asked for support of Proposition 65, known as the Clean Water Initiative, on the November ballot. The bill prohibits discharge of chemicals into ground water and requires businesses to report whether they are using or discharging chemicals, he said.
Those who illegally discharge chemicals into ground water or into the storm drains "should be treated the same way you treat rapists," Hayden said.
"The people of Santa Monica," Reed said, "are sick and tired of this flow . . . of illegal dumping . . . which ends up on the beaches at Santa Monica. Contact Supervisor Deane Dana. Let them know you are sick and tired of this."
The eight other storm drain outlets that bear signs warning of pollution are: Pulga and Chautauqua, both north of Santa Monica; Santa Monica Pier; Ashland, south of the pier; Ballona Creek and Imperial Highway, which both empty into the surf at Playa del Rey; Ainsworth, which empties into Redondo and Hermosa beaches; and Avenue I at Redondo Beach.
Satoshi Miyata, senior public health sanitation specialist for the county Department of Health Services, said his department keeps track of coliform counts and tells people they should "stay away from them." Miyata said his department has been sampling water near the drains every week, but will soon begin doing the tests twice a week.
Miyata said that even when the coliform count is high, it is rapidly diluted by the ocean water. The water is safe at points 25 yards away from the outflow, he said. That is why warning signs are posted 25 yards to either side of the discharge and why lifeguards try to keep people from swimming directly in front of the drain site.
However, many people at Santa Monica Beach on Sunday had not noticed the signs.
Carl Byker, a Santa Monica resident and a member of Heal the Bay, said that last week he saw a 5-year-old child put his head under the outflow at the Pico-Kenter drain. Even during the demonstration, children wandered into the water of drain water and had to be warned away. Right after the demonstration, lifeguards had to warn swimmers to keep away from the posted area.
A lifeguard who asked not to be identified said, "All of us are wishing we knew what is really in the water. I don't go in the water unless I have to and I used to swim every day.
"I would never let my children swim or play on this beach."
Both Miyata and Scholl, of the city's general services department, said they have never heard of anyone getting sick because of the water from the storm drains.
The Pico-Kenter drain was the site of three 50- to 100-gallon discharges of kerosene or diesel fuel last week, according to Stan Scholl, director of general services for the city of Santa Monica.
The area was marked off-limits last week to keep beachgoers away from a thick, smelly brown ooze that reportedly caused some swimmers and lifeguards to suffer nausea and skin burning.
Scholl said the city is offering a $3,000 reward for information leading to the identification and conviction of the people who dumped the substance into the drain.