Recent rainstorms, the first significant rainfall in months, have renewed concerns among environmentalists and government officials about the flow of contaminated water from storm drains in Long Beach and Southeast Los Angeles County.
The first major winter storms typically scrub streets, parking lots and rooftops of toxins and other pollutants that have accumulated during the dry summer and fall months. The soupy mixture of motor oil, grease, animal waste, pesticides, fertilizers, plastic foam cups and rainwater flushes into the San Pedro and Santa Monica bays through a vast underground storm-drain network extending from Cerritos to Pacific Palisades.
Although last week's three-day storm dropped about one inch of rain in the Long Beach and Southeast areas, the soaking was enough to demonstrate the danger of what some environmentalists have dubbed "poison runoff." For instance, members of Heal the Bay, one group concerned about Santa Monica Bay pollution, said they found several birds tangled in debris from storm drains that dump onto beaches.
"It is not the local government that is causing all of this pollution," said Mark Gold, staff scientist for the group. "It is you and me. It is the people who dispose of their waste irresponsibly in the street . . . . Nine out of 10 people don't understand that everything on the street from used motor oil, animal waste (and) trash goes directly from the street into the ocean without any treatment whatsoever."
A study of toxic heavy metals flushed into Santa Monica Bay in 1989 estimated that eight inches of rain washed 150,000 pounds of lead, 500,000 pounds of zinc and 11,000 pounds of cadmium into the bay. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which conducted the study, said the levels were far greater than those discharged by local sewage treatment plants during the same year.
The study also found that 4.5 million pounds of oil and grease, primarily from automobiles, drained into the bay in 1989.
"This whole problem has become tremendously worse in the Los Angeles area over the last three or four decades because the amount of poison runoff is directly proportional to the amount of people," said James Thornton, Los Angeles director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "More people means more paved surfaces and more cars."
The County of Los Angeles and 16 cities received a storm-water discharge permit from the state last summer that requires the local governments to begin cleaning up polluted storm water over the next five years. Although the initial permit does not include Long Beach or any Southeast cities, they are expected to be added to the permit over the next two years.
The permit could force cities throughout Los Angeles County to improve street cleaning methods, develop ways to filter runoff from parking lots, and provide public education programs about how to prevent toxins from entering drains. Although storm water pollution is most noticeable at the beach, environmentalists and regulatory officials say everyone should be concerned about it since storm drains funnel waste from throughout the region.
Here are ways officials say Long Beach and Southeast residents can help eliminate storm water pollution:
* Throw garden clippings and litter in trash cans, not the gutter.
* Sweep sidewalks and gutters. Do not hose them down.
* Recycle used motor oil, paint and other household hazardous products, or dispose of them at toxic disposal sites. Do not dump them in the street or in storm drains.
* Clean up after pets.
* Cut down on the use of pesticides and fertilizers around the home.
* Report clogged storm drain catch basins and illegal dumping into drains to the county by calling (818) 458-3537. Heal the Bay also has established a toll-free hot line, (800) HEAL-BAY.
County health officials recommend that swimmers use common sense when bathing near storm drain outlets because of contaminants in the water. Swimmers are advised:
* Do not swim for at least 48 hours after a rain.
* Avoid contact with storm water where it forms pools or streams across the beach.
* Wash off thoroughly after direct contact with storm water.
* Swim on the opposite side of a drain from the prevailing current.
Environmentalists and regulatory officials say the effort to reduce the flow of polluted storm water into the San Pedro and Santa Monica bays represents the most significant assault on ocean pollution since efforts began to reduce sewage discharges from city and county treatment plants more than a decade ago.
But this time, the officials say, government cannot solve the problem alone.
"We are going to have to be enlisting citizens as the cops on this," said Felicia Marcus of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. "There is no other way."