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Germ Source Elusive at Closed Huntington Beach Shoreline

Health: Restroom sewer pipes are tested as possible culprits in a mystery that has parallels to a two-month shutdown in summer 1999.

April 12, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Investigators seeking the cause of bacteria spikes that closed nearly half a mile of Huntington State Beach's shoreline ruled out a public restroom Thursday. It was one of three beach bathrooms suspected of leaking human waste into the surf.

"All those [sewer] lines check out" at the one restroom, said Don Ito, Orange County's state parks superintendent. He expects word soon after tests on the two other restrooms.

Inexplicably high bacteria counts in the water in recent weeks prompted the Orange County Health Care Agency to indefinitely close 2,000 feet of shoreline around Magnolia Street on Tuesday. Warning tape and signs are still up, though bacteria levels have declined. If levels remain low, access to the surf could be allowed starting next week, said Monica Mazur, the agency's spokeswoman.

The shutdown is the first time health officials have closed the beach without knowing of a specific sewage spill since the closure during summer 1999, when miles of Huntington Beach shoreline were off-limits for two months. The cause has not been discovered.

At that time also, officials first zeroed in on beach restrooms. Though a few leaks were found, they ultimately were ruled out as the cause.

In 1996, however, engineers investigating high bacteria counts at Bolsa Chica State Beach found 40 small cracks and separations in the sewer lines that proved the source of the problem, leading to a $700,000 upgrade, Ito said.

On Thursday, workers testing for leaks plugged pipes at a restroom southeast of Magnolia Street, filled them with water and watched to see if the water seeped out, Ito said. He awaits results on the two other possible sources being tested Thursday and today: sewer pipes at lifeguard headquarters and a public restroom northwest of the headquarters.

Mazur said, "It's so difficult with these things, with everything being underground.... This could be totally wrong."

Officials suspected the bathrooms once they compared bacteria spikes with use of the restroom and showers at lifeguard headquarters. However, Ito noted that during a two-week lifeguard training course in early March, bacteria levels continued to rise and drop. The heavy use of the headquarters during that time would be expected to keep the levels high, if it were the source of contamination. And Mazur noted that some of the bacteria spikes correlated with very low tides, which will occur again April 21.

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