Project Looks at Effect of Sewage on Marine Life

Times Staff Writer

Marine biologist Henry Schafer is probably one of the few people in Los Angeles praying for a really nasty storm.

In mid-December, when the weatherman predicted an 80% chance of rain, Schafer excitedly notified his team of technical experts, set his alarm to catch the dawn weather report and waited for a furious flash of water to come roaring down the Los Angeles River.

But the storm turned south and the disappointed scientist hung up his storm duds. Schafer, who is studying a troubling phenomenon that links coastal pollution to street runoff from storms, needs a rainy day to pull his tainted water samples from the river.

He is one of 23 scientists, technicians and marine experts working for the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP). It is the only organization in California, and perhaps the country, funded largely by municipal sewage agencies to find out how treated sewage and other pollutants dumped off the coast are hurting the ocean.

"Our task is simple, but extraordinary," said Director Jack Anderson. "We're trying to find out how man's contaminants are affecting marine life, and that means everything from the smallest worms to the biggest fish."

Amid Political Storm

In 1985, the project was the center of a political storm when some project researchers questioned whether their own organization had called enough attention to toxic contamination of local fish.

The former director, Willard Bascom, retired a short time later, and Anderson was recruited from Seattle to steer the group during a time of increasing public concern over ocean pollution.

In his first year, Anderson has launched a series of public seminars to exchange knowledge about marine pollution with the public and with the Los Angeles scientific community.

"Things have really opened up under Jack," said Bruce Thompson, one of the group's scientists. "The exchange with universities and other scientists has been a real healthy one."

Robert Miele, head of technical services for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts in Whittier, said the public controversy that engulfed the group last year has quieted down, giving it more time to devote to pure science.

"Jack has worked real hard to restore public confidence in SCCWRP, and I'm glad to see that," Miele said.

Housed in an aging warehouse on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, Thompson, Schafer and their colleagues are like big-city detectives working the tough end of town.

Whether they are tracking down toxic chemicals in sewage at levels as low as a few parts per million, or scooping contaminated muck from the bottom of Santa Monica Bay, they see firsthand the "downstream" effects of industrial and urban sprawl.

They see the tumors on fish, reproductive failures in bottom-dwelling creatures and high levels of toxic chemicals in livers and other organs. This year, fisheries biologist Jeff Cross discovered a "strong correlation" between reproductive problems in fish and the contaminants in the bay, Anderson said.

All these discoveries may be indications that the ocean's capacity for absorbing pollution "is not infinite," he said.

At the Sanitation Districts' headquarters near El Monte, technicians and scientists rely upon the research project to raise a red flag on many pollution problems.

"SCCWRP is looking at the kinds of fundamental research things that we, of necessity, don't have the time to do," said Miele.

Operate Sewage Plants

The sanitation districts, which treat and dispose of sewage for nearly every city outside the Los Angeles city limits, operate state-of-the-art tertiary sewage treatment plants in the San Gabriel Valley that cleanse millions of gallons of sewage, making it usable for watering lawns or for industry.

But the costly cleansing process is used on only a fraction of the 360 million gallons of waste that the districts pump into the ocean off Palos Verdes each day. Most sewage is given the less-stringent "secondary" treatment required by federal law. That treatment allows many contaminants into the sea.

"What are the mechanisms that cause a fish to get disease, or how do some of these toxicants move up a food chain?" asked Miele. "Each agency that discharges sewage has their little puddles of data about what sewage does to the coast, but SCCWRP ties it all together, from San Diego all the way up to Ventura County."

The scientists are armed with strange bits of information about pollution, the ocean and the sea's chain of life that seem to have been taken from the pages of "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

For instance, Schafer says matter-of-factly, the Los Angeles River spews as many toxins, chemicals and other pollutants into the ocean during one day of storm runoff as are funneled into the sea in one day by the sewage discharge pipe that serves all of Orange County.

As Much When Full

"That river's carrying just as many contaminants when it's full," Schafer said.

"The funny thing is, the sewage outfalls are monitored constantly, to determine how well the treatment plants are taking out the contaminants," he said. "The Los Angeles River is hardly ever monitored, and certainly doesn't get any treatment."

Another of their favorite facts is that there are 700 kernel-sized creatures living on every square meter of the ocean floor, from Long Beach to Malibu.

Every normal square meter of the bottom, that is.

At the ends of some sewage outfall pipes, which have poisoned the sediments with foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide, the population of sea creatures can drop to a handful per square meter.

Bruce Thompson, a benthic ecologist--or expert on marine life along the ocean's bottom--said it is critical for the scientists to understand the animals that live in Santa Monica Bay and off the Palos Verdes Peninsula--especially at the ends of the outfalls and in the oil-tainted harbors and marinas.

"We're all looking for cause and effect of waste discharge," Thompson said. "There's a shelf of flat, muddy bottom out there, inhabited by urchins, crabs, those kinds of things.

"But what causes an animal to move out of an area, or to have lots of reproductive problems? That's what we're so busy trying to figure out."

By gaining such an intimate knowledge of the creatures living in this soft sediment, Thompson said, the scientists are learning how man may be threatening nature.

David Tsukada leaned close to a microscope, eyeing dozens of rice-sized crustaceans and tiny worms he had transferred from a jar into a laboratory dish.

Holding a pair of delicate stainless-steel forceps, he gingerly plucked each tiny animal from the dish, examined it closely under the microscope to determine its species and dropped it into an appropriate jar with hundreds of others exactly like it.

"A lot of times, we have to open these little, tiny clams and look at their tiny hinges on the inside, just to identify what type they are," said Tsukada, a taxonomist whose job it is to correctly group each specimen.

"The microscope is just about absolutely necessary to really know what you've got."

The work is painstakingly slow. Creatures that fill a jar about the size of a pint of ice cream take six or seven hours to inspect and identify, Tsukada said. And there are always more jars coming in from the scientists, each of whom is working on a different project.

"It's a multifaceted puzzle and that's what our research is trying to unravel," Schafer said. "Life off the coast is so complex that all of these food chains and interrelationships begin to look like a vast spider web."

Multiple Variables

In fact, Thompson said, so many variables affect the well-being of marine life--such as the change of seasons--that it is extremely difficult to blame diseases and other problems on any single toxic chemical or waste product.

Because of those complexities, the scientists are pursuing their answers on radically different levels.

Some approach the questions much like a family doctor doing a yearly checkup.

They look at the general health of the entire coastline's ecosystem, tracking everything from the persistent levels of toxins and heavy metals found in fish off Malibu to the even higher levels of toxins and heavy metals found in fish off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Others, including toxicologist and senior environmental scientist Dave Brown, are more like microsurgeons, delving into the physical and chemical mysteries unfolding at the molecular--and even sub-molecular--level.

Brown is finishing up a study for the Environmental Protection Agency that looks into the complex chemical breakdown that occurs when the banned pesticide DDT, and banned industrial chemicals known as PCBs, make their way into the body of a fish.

Other Long-Term Problems

It is suspected that some new DDT and PCB compounds, created by biological processes inside the fish after it ingests the chemicals while feeding, are causing serious long-term problems, said Anderson, the group's director.

"The difficulty is that not very many labs have done this kind of work, and it's a very ticklish procedure," Anderson said. "We're trying to look at this in far finer detail than most people have."

Unknowns such as those at the molecular level bother Anderson the most.

Anderson says he has made it a priority to encourage studies into areas where little is understood.

"Detective work? Yes it is," Anderson said. "These are rather large questions we are asking, and the clues are often elusive."

In fact, the agency is involved in a study that could shine light on a group of chemicals that Anderson says could be more threatening than the carcinogenic DDT or toxic PCBs that linger on the ocean floor. (Since 1970, DDT and PCBs have worked their way into the food chain, and are now showing up in blood samples of some local sportfishermen at levels well above those considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.)

PAH the New Villian

But Anderson and many other scientists are equally worried about new "bad actors" called PAHs, or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.

PAHs are formed during the burning or heating of petroleum and other organic matter--even while char-broiling a steak, Anderson said.

They are produced by the oil industry, motor boats, truck exhaust and car crankcases, and at their worst can cause tremendous damage to all kinds of life, he said. They also occur in crude oil, which can enter the ocean through natural seepage.

"PAHs are the things we see killing organisms during oil spills," and they end up causing chronic health problems in sea life afterward, Anderson said. But, he says, the public and the policy-makers are not yet worried, or informed, about this widespread carcinogenic pollutant.

"If you're going to write off an area like the backwaters of the harbor, I guess the public could do that--they could say: 'It's OK to have an area where marine life cannot survive,' "Anderson said. "But, according to the Clean Water Act, you can't do that. That's where we come in." State and local regulatory agencies have used the group's findings to determine whether local polluters are upholding federal laws.

Core Samples Taken

Rich Gossett, an analytical chemist for the research project, said he and an East Coast scientist are looking at core samples taken from the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The samples, which will be read in layers much like an archeological dig site, may tell them how and when PAHs were first introduced off Los Angeles. The type of PAHs, whether from restaurant grease or oil refineries, is a clue to the source of the pollutant, he said.

In addition, Gossett and others have just completed a study for the state Water Resources Control Board that for the first time pinpoints the amount of PAHs on the sea floor. The harbors, where leaking boat motors and small oil spills are common, turned out to have the highest levels of the pollutant.

"I would expect diesel exhaust from the big number of trucks in Los Angeles would also be a major contributor to what we're seeing in the ocean (sediments)," Gossett said. "The trouble is that we just don't know that much yet."

Seldom do the scientists have a chance to study a dramatic improvement in the health of marine life off Los Angeles. But that is exactly what Bruce Thompson is hoping to do in the next few years.

Thompson will conduct a three-year study of what happens to marine life when the city of Los Angeles turns off its controversial sewage sludge pipe, which now spews 4.5 million gallons a day of concentrated sewage into a deep underwater canyon seven miles off Santa Monica.

The canyon is considered one of the most polluted areas along the West Coast, and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ordered an end to the city's dumping.

"This will be a one-of-a-kind study, to see things reverse, to see how fast the bottom will recover," Thompson said. "We all have our theories about what's going to happen, and it's kind of fun to predict how quickly things will change. We can't wait until they turn it off."

But Anderson said that, despite such potentially valuable studies, the scientists face severe restrictions that keep them from studying many issues critical to the ocean environment.

Unlike the other major seaports on the West Coast, Los Angeles has no major marine science laboratory on its coast dedicated to the study of marine life, he said.

The aging research-project facility is three miles from the ocean in Long Beach and must have salt water trucked in from Redondo Beach for experiments. Because of the limited amounts of water, and the cost of transporting it, the scientists are unable to conduct many long-term studies or studies of larger marine animals.

Another marine lab, operated by USC on Santa Catalina Island, is two hours from Los Angeles by commuter boat and does not have access to polluted water, but only to clean channel waters.

Such limitations have prompted Anderson to seek funds for a beachfront lab, which could provide limitless free-flowing seawater.

So far, Anderson has come up empty-handed, although he is talking with Los Angeles city officials about the use of the old Cabrillo Marine Museum building, now closed, on Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.

"It should be a major embarrassment to Southern California that there is not one marine research lab along the wealthiest and most populated, most industrialized stretch of the West Coast," he said. "It's ridiculous."

Anderson has suggested a major departure in the way the group is funded.

Today, 60% of its yearly budget comes from the sanitation agencies for the City of Los Angeles and for Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Such funding has led to criticism by environmentalists that the research project is being paid to study pollution by many of the groups who cause the pollution.

"I'd like a governing board of state officials, the sanitation officials and public representatives--a real mix so there will not be any concerns with dischargers controlling us," Anderson said. He said he has never observed dischargers exercising control, but that such control is perceived by the public as a problem.

Under such a system, Anderson dreams of stable financing that would spare the research project's scientists from searching for 40% of its money every year. Its biggest funding sources now, outside of the local sanitation agencies, are the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We recently received two out of three nationwide grants, and that's because of the high quality of our staff," Anderson said of the federal money.

"But you can't win them all," he said. "We're spending time being grant writers when we should just be scientists. That's the thing we do the best."

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