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Beach in Newport Reopens After Cleanup : Pollution: Officials are still searching for source of greasy substance containing fecal matter that kept peninsula stretch closed over weekend.

August 08, 1995|LEN HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — A half-mile stretch of Balboa Peninsula was reopened to swimmers and surfers Monday afternoon, but the origin of the massive white gunk that washed ashore and caused the beach to be closed over the weekend remains a mystery, officials said.

Lifeguard Greg Haines said the popular beach from 32nd to 48th streets--an area called the Finger Jetties--was declared safe to open by county health officials about 1 p.m., nearly three days after the odd, greasy substance was reported by beach-goers Friday evening.

"We still don't know what the stuff was or where it came from," Haines said. "We just know that it is safe now."

A county health official said he was "reasonably sure" that the material was grease particles containing fecal material from a sewage discharge, but the origin remained "the $64,000 question."

Possible sources varied from a sewage outfall five miles offshore of the Santa Ana River jetty to a passing ship, said Larry Honeybourne, program manager of the county Health Care Agency's environmental health division.

"Right now, we just don't have any kind of firm ideas of where it all came from," Honeybourne said. "The search for the source is continuing."

Water tests showed no bacteria counts that exceeded state standards for swimming and the public was never in any immediate danger, Honeybourne said.

The beaches were closed as a precaution because of the unprecedented amount of material and because it apparently originated in waste water and contained bacteria and significant coliform counts, he said.

Beach closures, generally due to high bacteria counts from sewage spills, are nothing new in Orange County. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council said county beaches were closed 125 days in 1994, more than double the 61 days reported in 1993.

Honeybourne described the material that washed ashore in Newport Beach as similar to the small Styrofoam pieces that are packed in boxes containing televisions and other appliances, but with a hard shell on the outside and a nasty odor inside.

Such material is familiar to sewage treatment experts and ocean water samplers, but showed up during the weekend "in concentrations we have never seen before in Orange County," he said.

"If our water samplers saw one every couple of months, that was a lot. But here we are talking about literally thousands and thousands of them," Honeybourne said.

Why the substance wound up on this particular stretch of beach is another part of the mystery. "Because they float, they are probably subject to the vagaries of the tides, currents and winds," he said.

City crews spent the weekend cleaning the particles from the sand and the rock breakwaters that jut out from the beach. An offshore inspection near the sewer outfall turned up no further evidence of the material, Honeybourne said.

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