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Bacteria Levels Stay Dangerously High After Sewage Spill : Pollution: Swimmers and surfers along closed coastline criticize the EPA for advocating chlorine to disinfect effluent.


SAN DIEGO — Dangerous counts of bacteria, in some cases 1,100 times the legal limit, continued to pollute the coastline near the international border Saturday as San Diego County's sewage crisis entered its seventh day.

Twenty miles of coastline, extending from the mouth of the Tijuana River to the San Diego River in the neighborhood of Ocean Beach, remained under quarantine. Lifeguards along the closed coastline were ushering swimmers and surfers out of the water, authorities said.

County health officials said raw sewage, as well as some garbage, was washing up on the shores of Imperial Beach, near the border, where the stench of contaminated water was evident for miles.

At a morning news conference near the shores of Sunset Cliffs Park, which is in the contaminated area, scores of surfers and ocean lovers gathered to criticize politicians and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is urging San Diego to disinfect its effluent with chlorine.

Ruth Covill, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Department of Health Services, said that bacterial counts 28 times the legal limit were recorded Saturday at the Hotel del Coronado and that five people had called the health department complaining of gastrointestinal infections.

Health authorities said the contamination could cause a variety of waterborne diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disorders to dysentery, typhoid and hepatitis.

Covill said that at the request of state health authorities a quarantine was placed Saturday on all fish and marine life in a 20-mile area extending from the border to the San Diego River and three miles out to sea. She warned especially against eating shellfish.

San Diego's spill of partially treated sewage was first detected Sunday night, when 180 million gallons a day of effluent began streaming into the ocean 3,150 feet from the city's sewage treatment plant on the Point Loma Peninsula. San Diego's advanced primary system of sewage treatment removes 80% of the solids before pumping the effluent through an underwater pipe into the ocean. The plant serves 1.7 million of the county's residents.

Heavy rains Thursday forced the closure of a binational pump station, which sent 12 million gallons of Tijuana's raw sewage--normally diverted to San Diego's system--gushing into the ocean.

San Diego City Manager Jack McGrory said the Tijuana diversion system was turned back on late Saturday, which should ease the situation for a while--at least until today, when another in a series of winter storms is expected to delay repair efforts again.

San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor led a delegation of politicians and reporters Saturday on a tour of the 100-by-300-foot barge that was put in place Friday night to begin lifting sections of the reinforced concrete pipe, 500 feet of which is damaged.

The pipe, each section 25 feet long and weighing 30 tons, may take two months to repair. Repair crews began working Saturday by using underwater photographers to film interior and exterior shots of the pipe. Lifting the 600-ton pieces of pipe will not begin until next week.

Ballast rock was imported Saturday from Santa Catalina Island to stabilize sections of pipe leading from the Point Loma treatment plant to the spill. The treated sewage was evident Saturday, in swirling, boiling currents of effluent that hundreds of sea gulls were feeding on.

The rupture occurred only three-quarters of a mile from Point Loma at a depth of 35 feet. The outfall pipe normally carries effluent 2.2 miles offshore to a depth of 220 feet.

The pipe had never ruptured since being installed in 1963 and local officials continued to blame the break on what they called natural, external forces caused by settlement on the ocean floor combined with heavy wave action during recent low tides.

Political bickering has continued since the spill began.

"The mayor doesn't understand the sewage problem--never has, never will," said Brian Bilbray, a member of the County Board of Supervisors. "Too often, the politicians around here care only about getting elected, not about the quality of life in San Diego. They're supposed to be responsible, but they're not. How can we turn to such people for leadership?

"We also have to stand up to the EPA and say: 'We don't want your chlorine and your methods that harm the environment.' "

O'Connor responded that Bilbray had stood in the way of efforts to install a more sophisticated treatment system.

At a news conference, surfers criticized politicians and the EPA, which is urging San Diego to disinfect its effluent with chlorine.

"They want to destroy our environment," said Mike Bell, 43, a member of an Ocean Beach surfing club. "Well, we're going to stand up to the EPA and tell them they just can't do it. Who are they to tell us what to do?

"Surfing is a part of life. My wife looked at me this morning, and said: 'Oh, my God! How am I going to put up with you and our son not being able to surf for God knows how long. I want this to stop!' "

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