In Memoriam

educating the public on environmental issues

Ocean Sewage Dumping Runs Afoul

Although it is now impossible to find toxin-free fish in Southern California's waters, the city and county of Los Angeles show no sign of easing the daily dumping of millions of gallons of sewage offshore. Their application for waivers to continue ocean duping for five more years will be considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board Monday in Los Angeles.

Recently, high levels of carcinogens, mostly DDT and PCB, were detected in fish and other sea life in Santa Monica Bay. Many people assume that chlorinated hydrocarbons have been banned, and that current traces must be leftovers. This is only partly true. Eight pesticides legally sold in California contain DDT. Most DDT and PCB enters the ocean through runoff, but a significant amount is still being discharged through our sewage system, despite the availability of technology and laws to stop it.

Through the Hyperion treatment plant in El Segundo, the city of Los Angeles contributes 42.5% of Southern California's daily output of 1 billion gallons of sewage. Of this 425-million-gallon share, only 100 million gallons -- less than 25% -- receives secondary treatment, which removes suspended solids missed by primary treatment. When suspended solids are removed, so are most of the toxins, which adhere to them.

All 425 million gallons a day are pumped through a common pipe that ends five miles off Santa Monica beach in 180 feet of water. This effluent is only 60% free of toxins because only 25% of it has undergone secondary treatment. If the entire output had received secondary treatment, 90% of the toxins would have been removed.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 originally required secondary treatment of all sewage by 1984. A 1977 amendment allows waivers for sewage-treatment plants such as Hyperion if the operators can demonstrate that the discharge is harmless. Until now Hyperion has had no problem getting this waiver. With the help of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, Hyperion has "demonstrated" more than once that its sewage actually was beneficial to the area's sea life.

The research project, formed in 19965 to study the marine disposal of wastes, has lost all credibility with environmental groups. Its only source of income is from sewage-treatment plants. Its funding is directly in proportion to the amount of sewage that it decides is safe for the marine environment, and it denigrates its well-researched studies with contradictory interpretations.

In fact, this blind watchdog has even advocated the disposal of sewage sludge -- the solid matter left after treatment -- in coastal waters, which is illegal under the federal Clean Water Act.

This sludge has a very high concentration of toxic substances and, when mixed with ocean water, it creates a substantial demand for oxygen. It contains large amounts of disease-causing organisms, and it has substantially altered the biological composition of areas of sea floor where it has been released.

Hyperion extracts sludge from the sewage that is bound for the 5-mile outfall because it is life-endangering. But then it sends the sludge through a 7-mle pipe that ends at the top of a submarine canyon 320 feet deep. Where once these deep waters provided nutrients for the abundant sea life found in this area, they now also contain sludge from the submarine canyon. Major currents dominating the Southern California coast, heavy storms and a rare phenomenon known as "up-welling" can quickly distribute these contaminants into shallower waters.

The effect of these poisons on human beings has yet to be determined. Recent warnings by the California Department of Health Services about eating coastal fish indicate a definite danger from potential human carcinogens.

The most striking evidence of accumulated chlorinated hydrocarbons' effects on mammals is seen in the massive tumors, cancers and internal abscesses found in stranded dolphins and sea lions on Southern California shores.

County health officials at first dismissed the findings in local fish as "imaginative hazards" and refused to post warning signs. Not surprising since the county sanitation districts contribute to coastal pollution through the state's second-largest sewage treatment plant, which spews out 365 millions gallons daily only two miles off San Pedro in 200 feet of water.

With the hearing that is scheduled for Monday in the downtown State Building, the public now has a rare chance to stop this poisoning of our coastal waters.

If you love this ocean, please testify on its behalf.

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by Patrick Wall
Earth Alert