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Finally Cleaning Up Its Act

July 20, 2002

The Orange County Sanitation District finally has decided to live up to its name. After years of arguing "not needed" and "can't afford it," it voted Wednesday to clean up millions of gallons of human waste pumped into ocean waters off Huntington Beach. The county can at last rid itself of an unattractive distinction: Its release into the Pacific was dirtier than the outflows from nearly all of the nation's 16,000 other sewer agencies.

The unexpected move, driven by pressure from environmentalists and frustrated beachfront cities, means the agency will abandon plans to renew a federal waiver that allows the dumping of 120 million gallons a day of partially treated sewage four miles offshore.

Constructing facilities to cleanse the sewage more thoroughly will take more than a decade and cost up to $270 million, or an average of $16 a year per household. It will be time and money well spent.

No one knows whether the plume of sewage released into the ocean was the cause of the mysterious pollution that led to a series of beach closures at Huntington Beach. Studies were inconclusive. But the sanitation district, after years of saying that the sewage remained miles offshore, finally admitted this year that the waste could move to within a half-mile of county beaches.

For a long time, the waiver drew little public attention because people found sewage about as boring a topic as you could name, associated with such bureaucratic jargon as "aging infrastructure" and "deferred maintenance." Not until it was linked to more understandable phrases--"bacteria and viruses in the ocean" and "beach closure"--did the move to end the waiver gain popularity.

It's an important message for public leaders as the work of producing a cleaner ocean begins. A member of the sanitation agency's board correctly noted that sewage treatment alone won't stop beach closures and pollution postings. The main causes are sewer line spills, caused by grease plugs and crumbling pipes, and urban runoff--that hideous mix of car oil, pesticides and other toxins that washes off lawns and streets and through storm drains to the ocean.

Now that water quality agencies are imposing strict rules on urban runoff, city officials in most of Southern California already are talking of "not needed" and "too expensive."

The ocean is not an infinite resource, able to take everything we flush into it and remain a source of food, beauty, wildlife and recreation. Southern California's leaders should lead, taking aggressive and sometimes costly steps to stop polluting the ocean and beach instead of waiting for public outcry to force a cleanup.

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