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A Flood of Trash : L.A. River Carries Tons of Debris to Area Shores


LONG BEACH — Vacationing Robbie Wright and his son, Paul, sat sipping coffee Thursday morning at Shoreline Village, gazing at the boats and water below as the long-absent sun made a welcome appearance. It was not a pretty sight.

The sleek white hulls of expensive sailboats floated in a cake of nasty-looking debris studded with bobbing plastic foam, tree limbs and plastic bottles. The muddy water resembled a very bad cup of hot chocolate.

"We can't believe it," Wright acknowledged with a smile as he nodded toward the muck below. "We've come from England, and it's a good (thing) we've been here before or we'd think it was a bit rough."

The marina trash was just a drop in the city's garbage buckets. Last week's spectacular storms washed spectacular amounts of debris onto Long Beach shores. City workers labored from dawn to dusk, scooping up endless waves of tangled urban litter and tree limbs spewed from the mouth of the Los Angeles River.

Officials who oversee the city's beach maintenance estimated that the torrential rains were littering the local coast with some 4,000 tons of trash--more than three times the amount left by a typical winter storm. The cleanup bill was expected to total about $800,000.

"Unfortunately, we get it all," lamented city Parks Manager Phil Hester. "You name it. It's mostly tree branches, trunks, a tremendous amount of Styrofoam, cans, tires. We may find refrigerators, dead animals."

Running from the southern end of the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, the 51-mile Los Angeles River acts as a giant storm drain, catching the runoff water that has scoured a vast urban area. What gets tossed in the gutter flows into the river channel--and ultimately into Long Beach's waters.

It's enough to make Rudy Vanderhider yearn for environmental activism. "Tell your readers to register Green (the political party)," Vanderhider exhorted from the water taxi he operates between Shoreline Village and the Queen Mary ocean liner, a route that takes him across the mouth of the river many times a day.

"Sometimes we get clumps of trash so big there'll be three or four birds sitting on it," Vanderhider recounted. Couches and appliances bob by, along with countless motor oil cans. "Everybody who changes their oil in Los Angeles throws the can into the gutter," Vanderhider complained.

The city uses some of its largest equipment for the mammoth ocean cleanup job. Workers drive lumbering bulldozers into the waves to push the trash out of water's reach, leaving it in twisted piles resembling sand dunes strung along the shore.

In the marinas, a "flotsam dipper" does the work. It's a small pontoon boat with a conveyor belt that dips into the water. Workers stand on the pontoons and rake the trash onto the belt, which carries it into dumpsters lifted to shore by a crane.

Because the debris is wet and sandy, it can't be burned in the city's trash incinerator on Terminal Island. Instead, it must be hauled to landfills.

Until it is, a stroll on the beach is a somewhat daunting experience. "What a mess," sighed Diana Tynon as she surveyed the heaps of tree limbs and scattered plastic on the downtown beaches.

Still, she had found her treasures among the trash. She held four pieces of driftwood in her hands.

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