Dumping concentrated sewage--known as sludge--into the ocean may be in disfavor nationwide, but Orange County sanitation officials are awaiting federal authorization for a pipeline that would carry such waste into the Pacific Ocean off Huntington Beach.
The $20-million Orange County research proposal was given a boost when Congress included authorization for the experimental project in an amendment to the revamped Clean Water Act passed two weeks ago. President Reagan has until midnight Thursday to sign or veto the $22-billion legislative package.
But while backers of the project hold their breath in hope that Reagan will sign the controversial measure, debate rages on over whether it is proper to spew into the ocean what some scientists have characterized as potentially toxic black mayonnaise.
The original Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, sought to end the piping of sludge into the ocean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has opposed the planned eight-mile pipeline in letters to congressional leaders. And environmentalists point to two sludge dumps that are being phased out--one in New York and one in Los Angeles--as proof that the Orange County pipeline should never be built.
"The law of the land is thou shalt not dump sludge in the ocean, but maybe Orange County has seceded from the Union," said Rimmon C. Fay, a marine biologist who runs a research and consulting firm in Playa del Rey. "Our problems with the ocean don't begin with the ocean. They begin with what we take from the land and dump into the ocean. I think we've had enough of that."
But backers of the plan say the original Clean Water Act banned a necessary option for waste disposal without the proper scientific analysis.
They argue that population growth in urban coastal areas soon could outstrip sanitation districts' capacity to deal with the subsequent waste. But by banning pipelines to discharge excess sludge into the ocean, the act eliminated a viable--and economically necessary--alternative, they say. Ocean disposal currently is estimated to cost one-fourth the amount needed for hauling and dumping the sludge in landfills.
'What's the Alternative?'
At the end of the Orange County pipeline "there will be a big, black nasty zone approximately five kilometers by two kilometers," said Bruce Thompson, an environmental specialist with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP).
"What's the alternative? People aren't going to give up their toilets. . . . The big question is how much degradation is society going to allow to not have it (sludge) buried in their backyards," Thompson said.
The controversial proposal calls for a 24-inch pipeline to extend from a treatment plant at the mouth of the Santa Ana River to a site about eight miles out to sea. The pipeline would follow the natural slope of the ocean bottom and deliver treated sludge at depths of 1,000 to 1,300 feet of water.
The pipeline and sludge treatment plant would cost an estimated $20 million to build, said Blake P. Anderson, director of operations for the Sanitation Districts of Orange County, the agency sponsoring the project. Estimates are based on what the project would have cost to build in 1982.
Research, monitoring, operation and maintenance would add another $12.75 million to $15.25 million over the life of the five-year project, Anderson said, and the entire cost of the project would come from the Sanitation Districts' general reserves. An estimated 500,000 gallons of sludge--half of the Sanitation Districts' current output--would be discharged from the pipeline daily.
According to Anderson, the disposal costs for all of the sanitation districts' sludge via pipeline would be about $500,000 annually. Currently, the Sanitation Districts spend an estimated $2 million a year to haul and dump sludge in county landfills.
Concern was expressed by SCCWRP--a research group funded by the Southland's sanitation districts--because one study suggests that ocean currents would create a band of sludge at a depth of about 350 meters along the slope of the ocean bottom instead of dispersing the treated waste matter. The SCCWRP study concluded that the sludge band would be most concentrated at the mouth of the pipe and travel about five kilometers to the north and south, parallel to the coastline.
"Nobody knows if it's not going to be a problem," Thompson said. "It's never been done on this coast in this deep water. This (amendment to the Clean Water Act) is to make a scientific project, to get information so we can make an intelligent determination" about whether ocean piping of sludge is good or bad.
But environmentalists question the building of a sludge pipeline off the Orange County coast, when similar projects are being phased out nationwide.
In Los Angeles, the city's Hyperion sewage treatment plant currently discharges large volumes of sludge into the troubled Santa Monica Bay. Experts say the plant's seven-mile-long sludge line is only one part of the bay's complex pollution problem, which gained public attention in 1985 with the announcement of diseased local fish and warnings against their consumption. The EPA has ordered the city to shut down the Hyperion sludge line by Dec. 31, 1987.
On the East Coast, notorious sludge dumping in the New York Bight was to be phased out by the end of 1987. Barges have dumped sludge 12 miles off the coast of Long Island for years, and in 1976, a huge mass of sludge moved inland, causing major damage and closing beaches. Experts blamed the dump as a cause of the ecological disaster. Such dumping remains legal, but the area is being closed in favor of a much deeper experimental site 106 miles offshore, officials said.
Two Possible Problems
Discharge techniques and oceanography in New York and Los Angeles differ greatly from the proposed Orange County project, but environmentalists here argue that the issue is the same--the dumping of sludge into the ocean.
A water quality biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game predicted two possible problems with the proposed pipeline. One is that the sludge could blanket the ocean bottom and change the marine habitat in the affected area.
Another is that many known toxic materials have a tendency to adhere to, or be absorbed by, particles like those that make up sludge. Sludge particles can pick up toxic substances like chromium, cadmium, copper, herbicides and pesticides as they travel through the waste treatment plant.
"While those may not have an acute effect on the organisms, they have the potential for exerting a chronic effect, interrupting reproduction cycles, interrupting metabolic processes necessary for growth . . . ," said Dwayne Maxwell of the Department of Fish and Game.
"It's an experiment, and I don't think that anyone has any right to experiment with marine biota unless they're doing it in an aquarium."
EPA officials say they have made clear the agency's concern about the pipeline proposal.
"The stance of the agency, including letters to Congress, has been that we do not support this project," said Richard A. Coddington, deputy director of EPA's water management division on the West Coast. "The reason is we think there are enough known problems in the ocean and there are other alternatives to dealing with sludge than putting it in the ocean." However, EPA officials in Washington say their opposition is based on general policy considerations rather than objections to the Orange County project.
Landfills Becoming Scarce
But proponents of the plan argue that it is unclear whether dumping sludge in landfills or burning it are any better environmental solutions than ocean dumping. And they note that landfills are becoming increasingly scarce as land is developed in urban areas.
In addition, some experts say, the waste has to go someplace, and it will have an impact on any dump site. In any case, the plan's backers stress that it is only a research project. If it is found to cause too much harm, the sludge line will be closed or modified.
"We're not just throwing stuff in the ocean," said Norman Brooks, one of the plan's architects and director of the Environmental Quality Laboratory at Caltech. "We have the ability to predict what will happen to it. I am confident that no one's ever going to see it. . . . If you say you should not put it in the ocean because of toxics, you should also say don't bury it because of toxics or don't put it in the air because of toxics. The deep ocean is probably the safest place to have tiny residuals."
The pipeline controversy could be cleared up quickly if Reagan vetoes the Clean Water Act, which is thought to be a strong possibility because the White House has objected to the high cost of the eight-year program to continue cleanup of the country's waterways and help construct more local sewage plants.
If the act is vetoed, the pipeline's future is uncertain. "Our general manager will consult with our board of directors and determine what the next step is," the Sanitation Districts' Anderson said.
EPA Has Permit Authority
If, however, the measure is signed by the President, it's future is not guaranteed. The measure gives the EPA authority to issue permits for the pipeline project. But first the agency would have to establish criteria for sludge dumping that the sanitation agency would have to meet. Public hearings also would be required before any decision to grant a permit, which would probably be made jointly by state and federal authorities.
And first, said Anderson, "we'll have to complete the modeling work and convince ourselves and our board of directors" that they should apply for the EPA permit. "We believe in (the pipeline) right now, but we have additional work to be done. . . . It looks good now."