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Officials Find No Evidence of Crime in Medical Waste Case

Times Staff Writer

An investigation into medical waste that has washed onto San Diego County beaches in recent months has failed to produce sufficient evidence to warrant filing criminal charges, authorities announced Friday.

Although officials say they will continue to monitor the situation, the county Hazardous Waste Task Force decided after a monthlong probe that no culprit could be spotlighted.

“There isn’t any proof of criminal wrongdoing by anyone at this point,” said Assistant U. S. Atty. Charles S. Crandall, a legal adviser to the task force. “It’s like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle. While we haven’t been able to do it so far, we’re going to continue to try to put it together.”

Crandall noted that the four investigators were able to trace three items to their source, but in each case it was determined that the debris--none of it a health threat--had been disposed of legally.

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All three items, investigators discovered, came from Navy ships. The service is now under fire from lawmakers, and Navy officials have said they will consider a ban on disposal of medical wastes at sea.

Other waste was traced to a military supply depot in Northern California, but investigators were unable to determine where the material went from there, Crandall said.

Investigators also interviewed witnesses who spotted large stretches of medical waste floating offshore in early November, but none of the material was ever recovered and no new leads were yielded.

“Our burden of proof in a criminal case requires we show beyond a reasonable doubt that we were able to trace something to a particular source and that it was disposed of unlawfully,” Crandall said. “Even if we could pin down someone doing the dumping, we’d have to prove that it was done outside of federal guidelines.”

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Crandall said authorities decided to release information about the investigation because of widespread public interest in the medical waste issue, which comes on the heels of dramatic problems with infectious debris washing onto East Coast beaches last summer.

The medical waste began appearing in late October on area beaches from Oceanside to the border as well as Orange County. The bulk of the waste consisted of innocuous medical items that health authorities have dismissed as little more than an eyesore.

150 Individual Items

According to a manifest released by the task force, authorities recovered about 150 individual items on 50 occasions in San Diego County since October. Among the items were vials of blood, syringes, plastic gloves and bottles of medication. The most recent find came Sunday, when an empty vial floated ashore in Oceanside.

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In early December, authorities clamped a news blackout on information about the case, including a gag order that prohibited lifeguards from discussing new finds with the media. Linda Miller, a district attorney spokeswoman, said the blackout would now be lifted.

The results of the task force investigation, which was launched Nov. 22, will be turned over to the county health department and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Those agencies will continue to monitor the situation and turn pertinent information over to the task force.

Crandall expressed hope that any further discoveries on area beaches might lead to legal action by the task force, a multi-agency coalition formed to investigate crimes involving hazardous waste.

“With the increased awareness of people, we hope they’ll come forward quickly, because that’s the only real chance we have to apprehend anyone,” he said.

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The three items that were traced to a source included:

- A bottle half full of prescription medicine discovered Nov. 18 at La Jolla Shores. The bottle was traced to a Navy crewman aboard the ship Vancouver. A Naval investigation determined that the sailor threw the bottle in a trash can in his sleeping compartment and it was dumped at sea beyond the 50-mile limit as required by Navy regulations.

- A military first aid kit found intact at La Jolla Cove on Nov. 25. The kit was traced to the Navy ship Frederick, where it had fallen into the sea from a gun mount a few days before. Crandall said the task force decided the kit posed no health hazard and did not warrant legal action.

- An empty prescription bottle found on San Onofre State Beach Nov. 16. Investigators determined the bottle was thrown away by a sailor aboard the Reasoner while the ship was in port. When the ship went to sea, the trash was thrown into the ocean beyond the 50-mile limit.

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Investigators also interviewed three witnesses, among them a self-employed pilot who spotted a gray vessel 35 to 37 miles off San Clemente that appeared to have four or five gray bags rolling in its wake.

Navy officials said they had no ship in that area, but a craft similar to the one described by the pilot was to the south conducting a classified experiment in which bags were released and retrieved.

Two men fishing 22 miles southeast of San Clemente Island came across two stretches of ocean that were littered with trash bags and medical debris.

At the first area, the trash covered a square mile. Among the items were trash bags of various sizes, surgical gloves, masks and gowns. The water appeared to be covered by a petroleum-based substance and the air bore an overpowering smell, the fishermen said.

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About 12 miles to the southeast, the men came across a similar stretch of debris, including an item that was described as about a foot long, 8 inches wide, opened flat, with a layer of hard muscle on one side and a thick layer of fat on the other. Investigators did not reveal further details of the item. None of the debris was ever recovered.

Found on the Beach

The San Diego County Hazardous Waste Task Force’s list, released Friday, of the medical debris found on San Diego County beaches:

Imperial Beach Nov. 16: white pills.

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Coronado Nov. 10: one plastic syringe.

Nov. 20: four syringes, two ampuls sodium chloride, six capsules-Afrinex.

Nov. 21: two plastic gloves, one test tube.

Nov. 27: one syringe.

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Ocean Beach Nov. 6: two syringes.

Nov. 10: one glass vial.

Nov. 18: one 1,000-milliliter bag lactate ringer solution.

Nov. 20: one syringe, one plastic vial.

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Pacific Beach Nov. 15: one plastic syringe, three plastic containers with pH pillows.

Nov. 16: one syringe.

Point Loma Nov. 15: one sealed bottle Tetacydine.

Nov. 18: one bottle antiseptic solution.

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Nov. 26: One B-D IV catheter needle with syringe.

La Jolla Shores Nov. 9: one medical drip bag, one syringe, one disinfectant bottle, one soap container.

Nov. 14: one bottle lactate ringer solution, one 19% sodium chloride bag, one vial with white powder, one empty plastic container oxalic acid, one bottle of aspirin.

Nov. 15: one syringe with needle, one package of eight antihistamine pills, one ampul, one tube Bayoline, one vial of sinus medication, one vial of white powder, one tube of orange powder.

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Nov. 18: one bottle of pills.

Nov. 20: one vial of white powder.

Unknown: plastic gloves.

La Jolla Cove Nov. 20: one large syringe, one vial of white pills.

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Nov. 25: one military medical first aid kit.

Black’s Beach Oct. 29: one glass vial of liquid, two syringes, one vial of blood.

Scripps Nov. 16: one swab.

Torrey Pines State Beach Nov. 20: one large syringe.

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Unknown: one plastic glove, one vial of white powder.

Del Mar Nov. 15: one 5% dextrose injection, one packaged needle, one gauze bandage, three vials of white powder, one contact lens vial.

Nov. 16: five ampuls, one unknown tablet.

Nov. 18: one bottle of iodine, two vials of white powder, one Viscot surgical skin marker.

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Nov. 21: one vial of white powder, one amber bottle with liquid, one syringe, two empty plastic bottles.

Nov. 25: one syringe with needle.

Nov. 28: one capped hypodermic needle.

Dec. 7: one vial of clear liquid.

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Cardiff Nov. 16: one patient’s wristband (no identifying marks).

Solana Beach Nov. 15: one compress bandage, eight plastic vials of iodine, one empty contact lens vial.

Nov. 18: four iodine bottles, one plastic container of Tolnaftate topical solution, one plastic container of an orange solid, one plastic glove, one glass vial, one gauze bandage.

Nov. 20: three plastic gloves, one vial of clear liquid, one vial of iodine.

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Carlsbad Nov. 16: two capped syringes with needles, one plastic bag.

Nov. 21: one clear plastic glove.

Unknown: three syringes, one capped syringe with needle, one empty glass bottle, one camouflage gauge bandage, one bottle of saline solution for contact lenses, one vial of clear liquid, one plastic glove, one aluminum packet with white tablets, one pill bottle.

Oceanside Nov. 16: One sealed vial with orange crystals.

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Nov. 18: two syringes.

Nov. 19: one yellow plastic container “chino” (foreign language), one white plastic container, one capped syringe with needle, one Barnes hard blue plastic container.

Dec. 10: one syringe.

Dec. 11: one empty vial.

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San Onofre State Beach Nov. 16: one bottle-Ibuprofin prescription.

San Clemente Island

Dec. 2: 25 arterial blood gas sampling kits, one plastic bottle of clear liquid, two packs of Merit cigarettes, one package of earplugs, one metal can of dry-cleaning solvent.


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