Water Foul? : Sea World, Water Board Fail to Agree on Chlorine Releases Into Bay

Times Staff Writer

“I don’t think any discharger who is in violation of waste-discharge requirements is a small problem. If you consider the volume of wastes that reach coastal waters, every little bit hurts.”

Dwayne Maxwell

Fish and Game biologist

Every month, the state dispatches a letter to Sea World--friend of aquatic animals, playground for tourists, pride of the promoters of San Diego.


Every month, the letter says the same thing: You are contributing to the pollution of Mission Bay. Please stop.

Every month, Sea World writes back, submitting the monthly waste-discharge monitoring reports required under state law.

Every month, the numbers tell the same story: Sea World is continuing to violate its permit.

The paper war is the product of a dispute between Sea World and the state over the waste water that Sea World discharges into the bay. Water-quality officials say the water contains too much chlorine. Sea World says its chlorine pales by comparison to pollutants already in the bay.


“It’s ridiculous to be discussing it,” said Lanny Cornell, Sea World’s zoological director. Yes, Sea World’s waste water contains chlorine, but only because the water Sea World borrows from the bay is so polluted it needs chlorination, he added.

He said the quantities of chlorine in question are insignificant compared to bay pollution from other sources. He called Sea World’s contribution “almost undetectable"--an argument that water officials say misses the point.

“That’s a statement we get a lot of times from people: ‘Why are you picking on us when there are other dischargers bigger than us?’ ” said David Barker, an engineer 7ith the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. “That’s a moot point in the sense that they have a permit with limits in it and those are the limits they are required to meet.”

Dwayne Maxwell, a state Department of Fish and Game biologist, said: “I don’t think any discharger who is in violation of waste-discharge requirements is a small problem. If you consider the volume of wastes that reach coastal waters, every little bit hurts.”

What effect the chlorine may be having on the bay remains unclear. Public health officials say it presents no threat to human health. But Fish and Game Department officials say the chemical can be toxic to some lower forms of marine life in certain concentrations.

Cornell maintains that Sea World’s chlorine has no impact at all because the amounts discharged are small. Barker said the board’s staff has no way of knowing the effects of the discharges without doing an extensive study--an undertaking the agency cannot afford.

“To investigate every discharger and the effects of the discharge on the receiving waters is a mighty tall order,” Maxwell said. “I am absolutely sure that the regional board is correct when they say they don’t have the manpower.”

The effects of chlorine on marine environments vary with concentration, water temperature and the types of organisms exposed, Maxwell said. Studies have found that it can hamper growth of microscopic plants and reproduction in bottom-dwelling worms, Maxwell said. He said it has also killed mussels and microscopic animals.


Under its waste-discharge permit issued by the water board, Sea World must limit the concentration of chlorine in the waste water it discharges. The limits are 0.1 milligrams per liter as a monthly average and 0.2 milligrams per liter as a daily maximum.

Sea World is permitted to discharge 3 million gallons of waste water a day--water that it withdraws from Mission Bay to fill tanks used by saltwater birds, fish and mammals. Sea World filters and chlorinates much of the water before using it in the park.

Later, the aquatic amusement park dechlorinates the water before returning some of it to the bay. The dechlorinated water returned to the bay comes from such places as the walrus tank, the grotto seal tank and the penguin research facility.

The chlorine levels allowed in the discharge are based in part on federal and state standards, Barker said. They also take into account scientific literature and the area’s basin plan, which fixes permissible levels of pollutants, including chlorine.

According to documents in the water board’s files, Sea World for years has been violating its chlorine limits. Over the last year and a half, the board has officially informed Sea World every month that it is violating its permit.

For example, the March monthly average chlorine level in waste coming from one of the park’s two discharge points was 1.3 milligrams per liter, or 13 times the permitted level. The daily average from that pipe varied between 0.8 and 2.3--far above the 0.2 level permitted.

During most months, Sea World exceeded the daily and monthly averages most of the time, its own reports show. On a few occasions, the board’s staff also informed the park that it was exceeding the limit on total suspended solids and coliform in its waste water.

“We view the company to be in serious noncompliance with the discharge permit in that they seem to be chronically violating the conditions and in that it’s been going on for years,” Barker said. “We have a large population of violators, and we do not have the staff to address them all at once. We’re basically addressing the big problems and working our way down the list.”


Cornell said Sea World sees the matter differently.

The problem, he said, is Mission Bay, which for years has fallen victim to sewage spills, runoff and storm-drain overflows. He said the bay’s water is so badly polluted that Sea World must “clean it up” and chlorinate it before it is safe for Sea World’s animals to live in.

“As a result, the small amount of discharge that we put back into Mission Bay is so much cleaner and well-treated that it is not in compliance with the federal standards on chlorine (in discharges),” he said.

Asked whether Sea World was not violating its permit nevertheless, Cornell said: “We don’t see it that way. The problem is the contamination in Mission Bay and San Diego Bay. Until they correct that, there is nothing that we can do about our problem.”

“We happen to be on the short end of the stick and are doing the best we can,” Cornell said. “Actually, the water we put back in Mission Bay is 10 to 100 times cleaner than the water we took out.

“We are charged with keeping our animals in a healthy state, and we’re dealing with a polluted body of water. There’s only so much we can do.”

According to water board files, the disagreement has persisted at least since the mid-1970s, flaring up occasionally at the instigation of the board. As early as 1976, Cornell’s response to the board staff’s complaints included a challenge to the limits set in Sea World’s permit.

“At no time did we acknowledge or agree to be bound by these arbitrary numbers as ‘legal’ amounts,” he wrote. “I therefore must ask you again to cease suggesting to our office notices of violations which in fact are non-existent.”

The next year, the board’s executive officer complained to the park’s general manager that he was not getting cooperation from the Sea World staff. In 1978, the board placed the park on a strict schedule to correct its violations by mid-1979.

After that, violations almost ceased. The board asked to know how Sea World did it. Cornell wrote back that the park was experimenting with recirculation, refiltration, chlorination and dechlorination but that it considered the details proprietary information.

By May, 1982, the chlorine issue surfaced again. A board staff member toured the park and suggested ways of stopping violations. The park promised to look into the effects of the chlorine around the discharge points. In late 1984, the letters began again.

Sea World’s position has been consistent throughout.

“We again for the record would like to point out that there would be no need for Sea World to use chlorine to treat the water if Mission Bay were not a source of disease-producing bacteria and viruses for our marine mammals,” Cornell wrote to the board staff in 1978.

“We are, however, responsible members of the San Diego community as well as scientists with a great deal of concern for the environment. . . . We will comply because it is the law.”

In recent years, the board has not taken formal “enforcement action” because more pressing problems have taken higher priority, Barker and others said. However, he said, the staff recently began considering steps the agency might take against Sea World.

Those actions range from an informal staff action under which Sea World would submit a timetable for compliance, to a cleanup and abatement order, to a formal cease-and-desist order issued by the board after a public hearing.

“We’re basically a resource-limited office, so we’re spending all our resources on the bigger-priority problems,” Barker said. “This is certainly one that is a candidate for enforcement. When we get to a point where we can address it, we will.”

That manpower shortage may have contributed to the problem.

Art Coe, another engineer with the board, said: “The fact that we’ve been going round and round with them for so long without anything more than writing letters--we’ve probably lulled them into a sense of security.

“We have many, many dischargers of that type. If you look into the file, the letters say: ‘This is the last time we’re going to tell you that this is the last time we’re going to tell you that this is the last time we’re going to tell you to clean up your act.’ ”