Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board officials have shown "an astonishing failure" to monitor and control toxic contamination in Santa Monica Bay, Assemblyman Tom Hayden charged after reading a report issued this week.
Hayden, chairman of an Assembly task force investigating bay pollution, said the board's report on ocean dumping raises serious questions about "who's in charge" of controlling toxic waste disposal.
"The staff report details decades of systematic neglect by the board in fulfilling their most basic functions," said Hayden (D-Santa Monica). " . . . The board appears to have been asleep at the switch, with the result being irreversible damage to the marine environment."
The report, released at a board meeting Monday, was written in response to allegations by a USC toxicologist and others that Santa Monica Bay and outlying waters had been poisoned by "massive" dumping of toxic substances, including DDT, cyanide and PCBs. At certain levels, toxic chemicals can cause cancer and other diseases in marine life.
Dr. Robert P. Ghirelli, the board's executive officer, admitted that the board had been lax in investigating past violations, but blamed the problem on staff shortages. He called the report a "first step" toward determining whether the contamination levels pose a health threat.
"I don't think we expected to turn up anything new," Ghirelli said. "But the report is important because it brings together a lot of pieces of information. It helped us to gain a better understanding of where we are and where the gaps in our knowledge are."
The report confirms that DDT and industrial waste was dumped off Santa Catalina Island. The DDT was dumped until 1961, according to the report, and industrial waste was dumped through the early 1970s, when the board stopped issuing permits. At one dump site northwest of Santa Catalina Island, officials estimate that 700 metric tons of DDT was dumped. It adds that three-fourths of the DDT found in local waters appears to have come from the Joint Water Pollution Control Plant outfall at White's Point near Palos Verdes.
Although most of the major dumping occurred south of Santa Monca Bay, Ghirelli said that currents carried the materials toward shore. The report says, "Pollutants still may be present in considerable quantities on the ocean bottom. A reasonable effort must be made to ascertain the degree to which potentially hazardous compounds such as beryllium, cyanide, naphthalene, pesticide residues and other materials continue to persist and adversely affect the local marine environment."
The report also states that the board sanctioned the dumping of refinery and chemical wastes, radioactive waste and military explosives at 14 separate dump sites in Santa Monica Bay between 1931 and 1974.
And the report notes that two defunct disposal companies--California Salvage Co. and Pacific Ocean Disposal Co. Inc.--"may have dumped a significant portion of their wastes short of the designated dump sites."
California Salvage, according to the report, violated board regulations by illegally dumping toxic waste near the the White Point outfall on two occasions in 1968. However, the board does not know how much waste was illegally dumped because there was no formal investigation, the report adds.
Ghirelli said the board is awaiting the studies being conducted by other state and federal agencies, including the state Health Services Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
If the other studies also disclose that health hazard exists, Ghirelli said the board may post warnings on piers (including Santa Monica Pier)and other seafood-gathering areas, designate the area surrounding the White's Point sewage outfall off-limits to sportfishing and limit sales of the most contaminated species of fish caught in or near San Pedro Channel.
Some public officials contend that warnings should be posted immediately. Hayden, who successfully campaigned for $60,000 in state funds to study bay pollution late last year after fishermen complained that the fish population was declining, argued that some notification of possible dangers ought to be issued now to cut down on the health risk.
"I'm worried that the scientists will argue the matter to death while more and more people catch and eat contaminated fish," Hayden said. "I see no problem with indicating that there may be a risk."
And Santa Monica Mayor Christine E. Reed told board members Monday that city officials already are investigating the legal ramifications of posting warnings. "We stand ready as a city to assist in the public information effort," said Reed, a former chairwoman of the water quality board. "We just need the information given to us."
Monday's meeting gave people concerned about bay contamination an opportunity to voice their concerns to the water quality board, but it also illustrated the level of disagreement over the possible health threat.
Dr. Lewis A. Schinazi, who helped compile the water quality board report, said illegal dumping may have occurred as close as two miles offshore, but added that most of the toxic dumping occurred in the 1950s.
Based on early studies of toxic levels in fish, Schinazi said that two species--white croaker (one of the most commonly caught fish)and Dover sole--pose the greatest health risks. But board member Betty Werthman said the board should consider issuing a general warning, because many fisherman cannot distinguish among various species of fish.
Dr. Brian Melzian, an oceanographer and environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, told the board that his agency also was looking at health risks and agreed that the board should focus its attention on more than just two varieties of fish. Asked about his knowledge of contamination, Melzian, who has worked on both coasts, replied:"Nowhere on Earth is as heavily contaminated with DDT and PCB's as Southern California."
Schinazi quickly stated that most of the trouble spots are contained in areas where the dumping occurred, adding, "Our bay is a gem."
But Melzian later defended his statement, saying that pollution in Santa Monica Bay and around Southern California "has been and in some cases is still a serious problem" that needs further investigation.
"Some of this data has been around for a few years," Melzian added. "Some of it could have been looked at by the appropriate agencies in the past. I don't know why this has not happened. . . . There's enough data available now to raise some red flags, but not necessarily to come to a full stop."
Rimmon Fay, a marine biologist and former member of the state Coastal Commission, has been issuing warnings about the dangers of bay contamination for years. His biggest adversary has been Willard Bascom, director of the Southern California Water Research Project. In a recent interview, Fay said his "stomach kinda ties up" at the thought of eating fish from the bay. Fay blamed the agencies charged with monitoring water pollution for allowing the dumping to occur in past years.
"Every time you look at the shoreline you find that nobody's watching the shop," Fay said. "Seven different agencies were aware that this was going on, and nobody said anything."
Bascom charged that Fay "had no data" to support his allegations and said that Bascom's staff had found no areas with dangerous levels of contamination. Bascom added, however, that he probably would avoid white croaker, Dover sole and spiny dogfish because they contain higher levels of contamination, and agreed that further studies should be done to ensure that the waters are safe.
To Meet in May
Hayden said the Assembly task force probably will meet next in May, when more information is available. He added that one of its major goals will be establishing the responsibilities of public agencies.
"Some agency clearly ought to be responsible," Hayden said, "Whether that's a new agency or whether the water quality control board ought to be reformed and improved . . . and made more professional . . . or whether the Fish and Game Department's enforcement capacity ought to be upgraded, these are all being looked at."
Ghirelli said he hoped the studies will lead to better communication among the local, state and federal regulatory agencies. Hayden added that preventing further problems is the best they can hope for.
"We're going to look at what can be done about the pollution," Hayden said. "But my preliminary opinion is that nothing can be done except for stopping it in the future."