Fighting pollution in Santa Monica Bay is like building a sandcastle on the beach. Unless you're careful, it crumbles with the tide.
Lately, we've made progress: The city of Los Angeles has reduced pollution in its waste water to historically low levels, the bay has been designated part of a new and promising federal ocean program and national media attention has focused on the problems of ocean pollution. But now the county of Los Angeles is trying to torpedo the effort to heal the bay.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has denied the county's application for a waiver from the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Rather than cleaning up its sewage to the maximum extent required by federal law, the county has decided to appeal the EPA's decision.
This appeal is the county's third attempt in nine years to avoid obeying the law. Just a few weeks ago the county Sanitation District went to the regional Water Quality Control Board to argue for a two-year extension to allow continued dumping of sludge in the ocean, even though the regional board had told the county four years ago that it should stop sludge dumping by July 1, 1988. The city of Los Angeles stopped dumping its sludge in 1987.
The Clean Water Act, the law the county doesn't want to obey, requires treatment that removes up to 90% of the contaminants in sewage, a process called "full secondary." The act also requires the complete cessation of sludge dumping. Yet the county still discharges a form of sludge called centrate.
Sludge contains most of the bacteria, viruses and toxins found in sewage, and contaminates all that it contacts in the ocean. Local scuba divers describe sludge as "black mayonnaise." Sludge has even forced Mother Nature to create an altogether new and pathetic clam that has no stomach.
To treat sewage, sludge is allowed to settle to the bottom of large holding tanks, then is removed to landfills. But some sludge particles don't fall to the bottom of the tank. They stay suspended in the liquid, get discharged into the ocean and eventually settle to the ocean floor. There they accumulate over time into huge, undersea toxic dunes.
The closer a treatment plant gets to complying with the Clean Water Act, the less it discharges of these suspended sludge particles. But the county only tests to 60% of full secondary. This is why the 40% that the county doesn't treat is so damaging to the marine environment: It contains the bulk of the poisons dumped into our ocean.
What makes the county's argument so incredible is the fact that it contends it needs the waiver to continue burying the poisons it discharged years ago--along with the toxic wastes it discharges now.
To understand this circular logic, a little history is in order. Between 1947 and 1970, the county's sewage plant discharged DDT-laden waste water off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The once-popular insecticide was manufactured by a company that discharged its processing wastes directly into the county's sewer system.
The DDT--1,800 tons of it--passed through the county's treatment plant, out the discharge pipe and settled to the ocean floor. There it entered the food chain. Soon the coast's brown pelicans, dolphins, sea lions and various fish species were contaminated with the poison.
The county now claims that the DDT has been buried to a depth of about 4 to 12 inches. It wants us to believe that the DDT has been removed from the ecosystem because it has been concealed beneath layers of discharged sewage.
If the county is exempted from federal law, this layer will grow at a rate of 39,500 tons a year of hazardous sewage solids, which will include 6.6 tons of poisonous arsenic, 2.5 tons of toxic cadmium, 25 tons of lethal lead, 5.5 tons of dangerous selenium and 40 tons of noxious chromium, along with thousands of tons of oil, grease and ammonia.
We cannot expect to remove a hazard by burying it with a hazard. The best policy is to remove as much of the pollution from the sewage before it is discharged into the ocean. Right now the county discharges three times the hazardous materials allowed by federal law. Once it stops discharging centrate, the county will still be putting twice the permissible sewage into the ocean. Yet with a relatively small effort, the county could reduce its discharge of toxic sewage solids to just 9,000 tons a year and comply with the Clean Water Act.
County government seems to be more concerned with saving money than saving the bay. It appears to be ignoring the growing local awareness of the dangers of ocean pollution. Maybe the county supervisors haven't noticed that 44% fewer people visited county beaches in 1987 than in 1983.
Two years ago the regional Water Quality Control Board held a hearing on pollution in Santa Monica Bay. It was at this hearing that a member of the county Board of Supervisors vilified the city of Los Angeles for not acting sooner to improve its waste water treatment system.
"It is almost inconceivable that a hearing such as this is even needed," an indignant Deane Dana told the stunned board members. "When the city of Los Angeles was assessed $4 million in fines, all doubt over who is guilty of polluting Santa Monica Bay was eliminated."
The county may have enjoyed bragging rights then, but in less than two years the city has surpassed the county in the quality of its sewage treatment. Now the finger is pointed squarely at the county and its leadership.