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California and the West

Testing for Ocean Pollution Tangled in Red Tape

Health: Activists urge implementation of 1997 state law requiring standard tests. But several counties are battling the program.

April 08, 1999|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A program designed to improve and standardize testing for ocean pollution remains snarled in a bureaucratic dispute 20 months after California lawmakers enacted it.

Environmentalists say the delay means that those who swim in the ocean near storm drains may not be warned about exposure to bacterial pollution, which can cause colds, rashes, diarrhea, ear infections and other ailments.

"The beach season is almost upon us, and the [expanded] monitoring is not occurring and there are no state standards," said Mark Gold, executive director of the Santa Monica-based group Heal the Bay. "The delays are ludicrous and clearly not in the best interest of protecting public health."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, American Oceans Campaign, Center for Marine Conservation and Santa Monica BayKeeper also have written to the state Department of Health Services in recent days, asking that regulations for ocean monitoring be put in place immediately.

Until the passage of a new state law in 1997, health officers in each coastal county decided how to test for ocean pollution, when to order swimmers out of the water and when to post signs with health cautions--typically next to storm drains contaminated with human waste.

The law, written by Assemblyman Howard Wayne (D-San Diego), required counties statewide to use a common set of tests for organic pollution. It also delineated the levels of bacteria that require health officers to warn the public that the ocean is contaminated.

Regulations to implement the law were supposed to be completed in December and the expanded ocean testing was to have begun April 1.

But several counties, including Orange and San Diego, have protested that the tests could lead to an increased number of public health warnings, even when there is not a definitive increase in the risk of illness.

"We want to avoid having a situation of putting signs up and then taking them down all over the place, which I think would just confuse the public and not do what we are intending to do, which is protect the public health," said Chris Gonaver, chief of San Diego County's Land and Water Quality Division.

"We don't have enough information to be sure that exceeding one of these new standards alone is going to make people sick," Gonaver said.

Los Angeles County health officials support the other counties, although Los Angeles has for several years followed a rigorous sampling and beach signage program that would meet the requirements of the new regulations.

Implementation of the law has been most closely followed in Southern California, because it applies only to beaches that are visited by at least 50,000 people a year.

The need for improved testing became clear in 1996, when a study of Santa Monica Bay for the first time confirmed that polluted runoff from storm drains was making swimmers and surfers ill. A USC researcher found that people who swam near storm drains were almost 50% more likely to get colds, sore throats, diarrhea and other illnesses than those who swam farther away in cleaner water. Storm water is most often fouled when sewage pipes rupture.

The study also found that the vast majority of the bay's shoreline is safe for swimming.

That research differed from routine sampling for pollution in that it measured, over many months, the health of thousands of beachgoers who swam in the ocean. The epidemiology, in turn, gave scientists clues about which bacteria most closely correlate with swimmers' illnesses.

Before the study, public health officials had sampled mostly for coliform bacteria. But those bacteria, routinely present in a myriad of plants and animals, don't necessarily signal that ocean water will make people sick.

The study confirmed for the first time what scientists had suspected: that high concentrations of other bacteria, including fecal coliform and enterococcus, are better indicators that bathers might become ill.

The regulations proposed by the state Department of Health Services require counties to measure for those organisms and for the ratio of coliform to fecal coliform bacteria.

When any one of those measures reaches a designated level, signs must be posted to warn ocean swimmers about the potential for illness, the proposed regulations say.

But some county health officials say a single test should not be enough to warn swimmers out of the ocean. They say that they should not be required to post warnings unless bacteria levels are deemed excessive in two different tests on two successive days.

Without those double checks, the ocean could be labeled contaminated, for example, merely because droppings from a congregation of sea birds had found their way into the water, critics contend.

"That is not to say there is not some risk from animal waste, but we just don't know what the risk is. We want to know more before these rules are finalized," said Larry Honeybourne, program chief of Orange County's Water Quality Section.

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