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Endless Bummer : Environment: Ah, the joys of summer--sun, sand, surf. Oh, the worries of summer 1992--sewage, scum, sickness. Just how bad is the coastal pollution?

August 09, 1992|JEFF KRAMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MALIBU — Ah, summer in Malibu.

Sapphire waves wash gracefully onto world-famous Surfrider Beach as Pacific Coast Highway backs up with caravans of sun worshipers.

But a drumbeat of sobering environmental news--some of it real, some of it theory, some of it just plain wrong--is taking its toll on Malibu's priceless image as a haven of carefree summer living.

Recently there has been somewhat of a cholera panic, an AIDS scare, and reports of human fecal viruses swimming in the water. For a place that wrote the book on summer, Malibu is writing a toxic melodrama in 1992.

"I get maybe five or 10 people a day asking, 'Am I going to get sick?' " said Matt Weiss of Zuma Jay, a surfing store in Malibu. "I tell them straight out what's in the water, about the sewage that gets dumped straight into Malibu Creek, about the dead animals they find on the beach."

Concern about coastal pollution is, of course, nothing new in Malibu. Swimmers and surfers having long suspected waterborne contaminants of causing ear and eye infections, stomach ailments and other maladies.

But the depths of "eco- angst" this summer have even some environmentalists wondering about overkill.

"It's almost as if we went from a situation of not enough concern to too much," said Mark Gold, staff scientist for Heal the Bay.

Malibu's summer beach party was crashed early this summer with the release of test results by a regional environmental group that detected human fecal viruses and high levels of harmful bacteria in Malibu Creek, Malibu Lagoon and the adjacent surf zone.

The source of the contaminants remains unknown.

Such findings alone would have been enough to sap some of the fun from summer, but this year they were followed by a cryptic warning from the environmental group Save Our Coast that the AIDS virus could be present in the water as well.

The warning--based on studies of treated sewage in Florida and Texas--was quickly dismissed as alarmist by Heal the Bay.

Then, just two weeks ago, the group Environment Now released alarming test results indicating the presence of cholera in the water off Latigo Beach.

Although subsequent tests by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services showed it to be a naturally occurring strain of bacteria not associated with outbreaks of the deadly disease of the same name, such details have gotten lost in Malibu's current climate of fear.

"There hasn't been a soul in the water since this cholera thing came out," Connie Henry, a resident of the Tivoli Cove condominiums, said last Sunday as she sat on her balcony overlooking Latigo Beach.

Neighbor Jim Page observed, "What you've got is the word cholera. It's a mysterious word. Who really knows?"

At Heal the Bay, Gold urged the public to keep a sense of perspective about what is and what isn't a legitimate health threat.

"The conditions are bad enough as it is, without the need to exaggerate," he said. "Should we all be worried about getting cholera or AIDS from swimming in the bay?" he said, rather than worry about what he considers the more realistic possibilities of "people getting stomach flu, sinus infections, skin rashes, ear infections and those sorts of things." The good news is that for all the troubling talk, Heal the Bay has not seen fit to strengthen its 5-year-old advisory on Santa Monica Bay.

The group contends that the bay remains safe for swimming except within three days after a rainstorm. Swimmers are also advised to remain at least 100 yards from a flowing storm drain and an even greater distance from larger outlets such as Ballona Creek and Malibu Creek.

But though the policy may not have changed, there's a sense that something about Malibu has.

Forced to weigh unknown health risks against recreation, some beach-goers are keeping out of the water altogether. Others have migrated to Zuma Beach and points north, believing that the water is cleaner there.

"It's a sad feeling," said Tom Rowe, who still surfs at Surfrider Beach as he has done for 35 years. "This place used to be pristine."

Yet for many, the ocean remains as powerful a lure as ever, even where it meets a scum-filled drainage lagoon.

Last weekend--just three miles from empty Latigo Beach--dozens of people frolicked in the channel connecting Malibu Lagoon to the sea, despite signs warning that the water may be polluted.

As she splashed water on her toddler, one mother explained with a guilty shrug, "We drove down from Tehachapi to go to the beach."

Surveying the scene incredulously was lifeguard Jeff White, who confessed he found it difficult to understand how people could swim near the outlet.

"The crowds are still happening," he observed. "The bottom line is people don't care."

Whether that will always be true is another matter. For now, the Malibu Chamber of Commerce reports that the summer's environmental scares have had no impact on business or tourism.

But at the Malibu Shores Motel, manager Freda Gonzalez fretted about the future of a surf zone she no longer lets her family enter.

"When my friends and family come to visit me and they want to go in the water, I say, 'Stop!' I worry about the contamination."

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