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Sewage Contamination Closes Cardiff State Beach

Times Staff Writer

Concerned that abnormally high levels of sewage contamination found in the ocean here could pose a public health threat, San Diego County officials have closed a 200-yard section of Cardiff State Beach.

The popular stretch of coastline between Solana Beach and Cardiff could be off limits to surfers and swimmers for as long as a week, John Melbourne, the county’s public health engineer, said Tuesday.

Melbourne said the closure follows the county’s discovery that at least one ocean water sample taken from the surf near the mouth of San Elijo Lagoon contained pollutants at more than five times the level considered safe.

Under that standard, seawater is generally considered unsafe for bathing if more than 1,000 coliform bacteria are found in 100 milliliters of water. Melbourne said one test in Cardiff last week recorded 5,400 bacteria per 100 milliliters, while a more recent sample showed a coliform level of 2,400.

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If swallowed, the bacteria can cause nausea, diarrhea or even infectious hepatitis, Melbourne said. Officials have not yet pinpointed the source of the sewage.

“We don’t believe there’s a major health problem, but some of these samples have shown fairly high levels (of coliform),” Melbourne said. “We’ll continue daily testing as long as it takes for this pollution to dissipate. I simply can’t say how soon that will be.”

The test results confirm an ocean water study financed by the Cardiff-based group People for a Clean Ocean. The group, which has organized to fight any relaxation of treatment standards for sewage discharged into the ocean, announced last week that tests they commissioned from a private laboratory in San Diego found seawater contamination in Cardiff five to seven times greater than county standards.

Group members, alarmed by the findings, alerted the county and asked that the beach be closed. Health officials declined to close the beach pending results of their own studies, according to Richard MacManus, president of the Cardiff Town Council and a founder of People for a Clean Ocean.

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“I think this confirms the fact that the county is not looking after the public’s best interest when it comes to water quality,” MacManus said. “To get action, we as private citizens have had to fund our own testing and then alert (county officials). When we did, they wouldn’t believe us and wouldn’t close the beach. That attitude only endangers everyone’s health.”

MacManus added that the county’s inability to find the source of the sewage contamination is further proof that “it doesn’t seem we citizens can safely rely on our own government agencies.”

Melbourne conceded that he has “no idea” where the pollution is coming from but said answering that question is a top priority.

“It may be a leak at the sewage treatment facility there in the lagoon or it may be an overflowing manhole in a canyon somewhere,” Melbourne said. “We just don’t know, but I’m inviting anyone with theories to contact us.”

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Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday threw itself into the fray by directing the chief administrator to research the source of the sewage and recommend a program to prevent future spills.

On a recommendation by Supervisor Susan Golding, the board also asked county officials to investigate whether existing sewage treatment plants in the area are adequate for current conditions and future growth.

The contamination at Cardiff State Beach is the second such episode in the area this year. On Feb. 15, 65,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the lagoon. The beach was closed for 11 days.

The County of San Diego and Escondido discharge their treated sewage through an ocean outfall pipe at Cardiff State Beach. Last year, those agencies received permits to reduce the level of sewage treatment from the Regional Water Quality Control Board. People for a Clean Ocean has appealed that action.

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