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Fighting the Ooze

September 12, 1986

The evidence of pollution that has oozed from Santa Monica Bay in recent years is enough to make anyone wonder about local and state coastal pollution standards. For years DDT, PCB and raw sewage were dumped indiscriminately into the bay. The carcinogens are working their way up the food chain, and the bay is so bad in some areas that swimmers are warned not to swim and anglers not to eat their catches.

Yet, for all the evidence, there is little in the way of a system, local or state, under which coastal pollution standards are established, updated or reported. As a result, many threats to the environment and public health have slipped past undetected--like the finding of high levels of DDT in the bay's white croaker--only to emerge later in a more dangerous way. Until environmental officials approach coastal pollution more coherently, California's coast will get dirtier and more dangerous.

The Legislature has passed a group of five bills that would provide a measure of coherence to controlling coastal pollution. The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), deserves the governor's signature.

The most important of these bills would formalize procedures that the state Water Resources Control Board now conducts irregularly. AB 3500 would require the board to regularly update its coastal water-quality plan. The plan sets tolerable levels of pollutants that would be updated regularly as new pollutants and evidence on old ones emerge. In the past the board has revised its plan sporadically; this bill would require that it update the plan every three years. Similarly, AB 3506 would require the board to adopt regulations specifying the quantity and types of toxic wastes that must be reported to state health officials when those wastes are dumped into the ocean. Now they have no code, making it extremely difficult to police polluters.

The other three measures (AB 3501, AB 3504, AB 3505) would help health officials anticipate threats to the public and ensure that the public is alerted to the dumping of hazardous pollutants. Environmental officials have on occasion withheld data suggesting that certain ocean waters were dangerously contaminated with toxics, and have failed to act. AB 3504 would make it a misdemeanor for certain public employees to withhold such information, and AB 3505 would require the Department of Fish and Game to provide anglers with information on contaminated fish. But even if such threats had been reported, the Department of Health Services has not always been prepared to meet them. The department lacks a comprehensive risk-assessment plan, and AB 3501 would require it to develop one.

These are modest attempts to combat coastal pollution. Hayden could, for example, have asked for more money for the Regional Water Quality Control Boards, which are so strapped that they cannot enforce the standards that exist. The contamination of Santa Monica Bay can serve as a catalyst for more vigorous efforts to safeguard the coast, or as a portent of things to come. These bills would help set cleanup efforts on the right course.

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