Southern California's top ocean pollution research agency is sailing in rough waters.
The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project has been without a permanent director for more than a year, complicating its long-range planning. The 22-year-old agency has also suffered key staff resignations that have hampered its research projects.
Based in Long Beach and funded largely by municipal sewage agencies, the marine center is the sole public agency charged with studying how pollutants from sewer outlets are affecting Santa Monica Bay and other Southern California waters.
Sanitation officials who oversee the agency say this work--considered crucial to protecting marine life--will not suffer major setbacks. They portray the staff upheavals as typical of scientific organizations these days. And they vow that the marine center, known as SCCWRP, will soon be back on track.
But others in the scientific and environmental communities express doubts, fearing the unrest signals problems of morale and mission that could undermine the agency's ability to recover.
One of their chief worries, they say, is a destructive sense of drift that has set in during the long delay in finding a replacement for the former director, Jack Anderson.
"If something doesn't happen soon, SCCWRP could cease to be an important force," says Donald Reish, a professor emeritus of biology at Cal State Long Beach who serves on a scientific panel that advises the marine center. "It's at a very crucial crossroads right now."
The marine center receives $1.2 million of its $1.5 million budget from four sewage agencies serving Los Angeles and Orange counties and the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. The rest comes from outside research work for local, state and federal agencies.
Over the years, the agency has undertaken numerous projects to determine how pollutants from sewage outlets and other sources have affected ocean life in Southern California. In the process, the marine center has not escaped controversy.
It became the center of a political storm in 1985 when some of its scientists questioned whether the agency was doing enough to publicize evidence of toxic contamination of local fish.
The director at the time, Willard Bascom, retired soon after and a new director, Anderson, was recruited. Anderson worked to improve the access of scientists and the general public to the agency's research, but was suddenly fired by sanitation officials in June of last year.
Sanitation officials say the reason for the move was overspending by the agency during his tenure. Anderson declined to comment for this story, but others believe his attempts to beef up the agency's laboratory facilities, part of an effort to step up its scientific research, helped cause his downfall.
Said Jane Garber, who served from 1972 to 1990 as the city of Los Angeles' representative on the board that oversees the marine center: "Jack is a scientist, and the people who are sponsors do not understand science."
Since Anderson left in July, 1990, the research center's marine chemistry department has been decimated by resignations, losing its director and its three main chemists. None of those positions have been filled.
Two staff biologist slots are also vacant. In all, the agency's staff, which normally numbers 25, has dwindled to 18 employees, according to Jeff Cross, an agency biologist now serving as interim director.
One project delayed as a result of the departures is a study of how polychlorinated biphenyls, which are toxic chemicals, are transmitted in the marine food chain off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The study, delayed indefinitely, would focus on marine life near sewage outlets operated in peninsula waters by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.
"The personnel changes have definitely slowed things down at SCCWRP," said UCLA professor Michael Stenstrom, an environmental engineer who uses the marine agency's findings.
While almost everyone agrees with that analysis, there is little consensus on the causes of the staff resignations--and, thus, on what it will take to restore the research agency to health.
Sanitation officials attribute the departure of the chemists to the brisk turnover of environmental chemists generally these days due to strong demand for their services.
"There's a lot of mobility among chemistry people," said Charles Carry, general manager of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and a member of the board that oversees the marine center. "I don't think this is due to anything inherent" at the agency.
Others, however, say the departures may also have been due to doubts about the commitment of the sanitation agencies to supporting aggressive marine research.
Some present and former employees, in fact, complain that the sanitation agencies give routine pollution monitoring projects priority over more complex research into how pollutants from sewage outlets are affecting marine life.