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Sewage Sleuths : Small Army of Researchers Follows Pollutants to Ocean, Monitors Their Effects

December 28, 1986|JILL STEWART | Times Staff Writer

Marine biologist Henry Schafer is probably one of the few people in Los Angeles praying for a really nasty storm.

On Dec. 16, when the weatherman predicted an 80% chance of rain, Schafer excitedly notified his team of technical experts, set his alarm to catch the dawn weather report and waited for a furious flash of water to come roaring down the Los Angeles River.

But the storm turned south and the disappointed scientist hung up his storm duds. Schafer, who is studying a troubling phenomenon that links coastal pollution to street runoff from storms, needs a rainy day to pull his tainted water samples from the river.

He is one of 23 scientists, technicians and marine experts working for the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project. It is the only organization in California, and perhaps the country, funded largely by municipal sewage agencies to find out how treated sewage and other pollutants dumped off the coast are hurting the ocean.

'Simple, Extraordinary Task'

"Our task is simple, but extraordinary," Director Jack Anderson said. "We're trying to find out how man's contaminants are affecting marine life, and that means everything from the smallest worms to the biggest fish."

In 1985, the facility was in the center of a political storm when some of the research project's scientists questioned whether their own organization had called enough attention to toxic contamination of local fish.

The former director, Willard Bascom, retired a short time later, and Anderson was recruited from Seattle to steer the group during a time of increasing public concern over ocean pollution.

In his first year, Anderson has launched a series of public seminars to exchange knowledge about marine pollution with the public and with the Los Angeles scientific community.

"Things have really opened up under Jack," said Bruce Thompson, one of the group's scientists. "The exchange with universities and other scientists has been a real healthy one."

Robert Miele, head of technical services for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts in Whittier, said the public controversy that engulfed the group last year has quieted down, giving it more time to devote to pure science.

"Jack has worked real hard to restore public confidence in SCCWRP, and I'm glad to see that," Miele said.

Housed in an aging warehouse along the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, Thompson, Schafer, and their colleagues are like big-city detectives working the tough end of town.

Whether they are tracking down toxic chemicals in sewage at levels as low as a few parts per million, or scooping contaminated muck from the bottom of Santa Monica Bay, they see firsthand the "downstream" effects of industrial and urban sprawl.

They see the tumors on fish, reproductive failures in bottom-dwelling creatures, and high levels of toxic chemicals in livers and other organs. This year, fisheries biologist Jeff Cross discovered a "strong correlation" between reproductive problems in fish and the contaminants in the bay, Anderson said.

All these discoveries may be indications that the ocean's capacity for absorbing pollution "is not infinite," he said.

At the sanitation districts headquarters near El Monte, technicians and scientists rely upon the research project to raise a red flag on many pollution problems.

"SCCWRP is looking at the kinds of fundamental research things that we, of necessity, don't have the time to do," Miele said.

The sanitation districts, which treat and dispose of sewage for nearly every city outside the Los Angeles city limits, operate state-of-the-art three-stage sewage treatment plants in the San Gabriel Valley that cleanse millions of gallons of sewage, making it usable for lawn-watering or industry.

But the costly cleansing process is used on only a fraction of the 360 million gallons of waste that the districts pump into the ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula each day. Most sewage is given the less-stringent secondary treatment required by federal law. That treatment allows many contaminants into the sea.

"What are the mechanisms that cause a fish to get disease, or how do some of these toxicants move up a food chain?" Miele said. "Each agency that discharges sewage has their little puddles of data about what sewage does to the coast, but SCCWRP ties it all together, from San Diego all the way up to Ventura County."

The scientists are armed with strange bits of information about pollution, the ocean and the sea's chain of life that seem to have been taken from the pages of "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

Polluted River

For instance, Schafer says matter-of-factly, the Los Angeles River spews as many toxins, chemicals and other pollutants into the ocean during one day of storm runoff as are funneled into the sea in one day by the sewage discharge pipe that serves all of Orange County.

"That river's carrying just as many contaminants when it's full," Schafer said.

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