Sewage treatment plants and industry are discharging toxic pollutants into Los Angeles County waters with impunity, a regional environmental group contends in a new study.
In a report released today, Heal the Bay faults state and regional water quality regulators, saying that they have been lax in enforcing and adopting strong discharge standards for toxicity.
"Polluters are discharging toxic effluent with no risk of enforcement and not even an obligation to find out and abate what is causing that toxicity -- that is a major water quality concern," said Mark Gold, the organization's president.
Heal the Bay reviewed eight years of discharge records from 42 wastewater treatment and industrial plants in L.A. and Ventura counties. It found nearly 900 instances in which effluent samples contained toxic levels high enough to harm aquatic life in lab tests.
But the vast majority of those cases were not recorded as violations by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. According to the report, the board imposed penalties in less than 2% of the cases.
Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board, conceded that more precise, numeric standards were needed and said his agency was moving to adopt them in the coming year.
"I don't disagree this is the direction we want to go," he said. "We want to make our standards more clear, concise. . . . It's taking longer than we like. It's not simple."
Moreover, he argued that just because toxicity levels in an effluent sample are high enough to harm organisms such as the water flea or fathead minnow in lab tests doesn't mean the plant discharges are degrading the environment.
Fran Diamond, chairwoman of the Los Angeles board, said regional regulators have been waiting for years for the state to act. "You cannot enforce without any numbers to adhere to. . . . Everybody would agree toxicity is a problem."
Gold said it was thought that treatment plant upgrades to reduce nitrogen and ammonia output -- common sewage components -- would help, but they haven't.
"What's causing this?" he said. "We really don't know."