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Pollution Blamed in 2,400 Beach Closures : Oceans: Environmental group’s survey shows 402 shutdowns in California over two years. Study says sewage still threatens the nation’s most popular strands.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Contamination from sewage and storm water runoff resulted in 2,400 beach closures in 10 states, including at least 402 in California, during the past two years, a survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed Wednesday.

The study, prompted by a tide of publicity over medical wastes and sewage that washed ashore on East Coast beaches in 1988, said “massive quantities” of raw or inadequately treated sewage continue to threaten the nation’s most popular seashores.

Beach-goers cannot be sure how safe it is to go into the water, the environmental group said, because health standards vary from state to state. Identical bacteria counts would close beaches--meaning the water was off limits to swimmers--in New Jersey but not in New York.

“There are discrepancies all over the place,” Veronica Kun, scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in Los Angeles. “Some places may be very diligent and some places are less diligent. But there’s no reason some places should be more protected than others. It’s an issue where national regulators should be taking a stand.”

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Federal guidelines recommend that a beach be declared safe when only 19 out of 1,000 swimmers are likely to contract gastroenteritis, which can bring on fever, headache, nausea, stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea. California’s standard allows a higher bacteria count but includes no risk estimates.

Yet there is no requirement by California that beaches be closed if bacteria counts exceed the state standard. That decision is left to individual counties. Of the 10 states, only New Jersey mandates beach closures when bacteria counts exceed the federal guidelines. “What this means is that when people go to the beach, they may find their beaches closed, or if open, they may run the risk of swimming in polluted waters,” said Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney for the council in New York.

The environmental group said that 2.3 trillion gallons of effluent spill into U.S. waters annually from coastal sewage treatment plants.

County health officials in Southern California, while conceding that beaches have posed public health problems, questioned the study’s figures on the beach closures.

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They also said that in criticizing existing standards, the environmental group failed to point out that California counties often go further to protect public health than federal guidelines suggest.

“We think as a public health agency we’re protecting the public health,” said Jack Petralia, environmental protection director for the Los Angeles County Health Services Department. “We try to the best we can with the information we have and always err on the side of safety.”

Petralia, as well as health officials in Orange and San Diego counties, said beaches are closed immediately after a sewage spill is discovered. The beaches are not reopened until laboratory tests confirm that it is safe.

They also said beaches are closed when routine testing shows bacteria levels exceeding the state standard.

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But the county officials acknowledged that beaches usually are not closed after a rain when storm water runoff drives the coliform bacteria count above state standards.

Coliform bacteria is found in soils as well as in human and animal waste but only coliform bacteria found in waste is of health concern. The coliform found in runoff is discounted because it contains the harmless soil bacteria.

“It’s the human sewage that causes the illness. Not all coliforms are human pathogens,” Orange County Environmental Health Director Fob Merryman said.

Officials, however, conceded that routine water sampling varies from county to county. For instance, Los Angeles County tests its beaches every week while San Diego County tests only four times during the summer.

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Water at sewer outfalls is tested daily by the operators of the sewage treatment plants in all counties.

“But there’s always the case we don’t know about,” said Gary Stephany, environmental health director for San Diego County. “You could be swimming in contaminated water for two or three days and not know about it.”

Diane Cameron, a resource specialist with the environmental group, said she hopes the report will add fuel to a drive in Congress to strengthen the federal Clean Water Act. But, she said, Congress is not expected to act until next year.

In addition to California, New York and New Jersey, the other states in the study were Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

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California Beach Closures

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which collected data from eight of California’s 13 coastal counties, reported there were at least 338 days in which beaches were closed in 1990. In 1989, it reported 64 days of closures in two counties surveyed. Here is a look at the number of days beaches were closed because of the presence or possibility of elevated bacteria levels.

1990 LOS ANGELES COUNTY: 8 total days closed

Closed from 2/17 to 2/21: Coastline from Topanga to Palos Verdes

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Closed from 12/10 to 12/14: King Harbor South to Pearl Street

SAN DIEGO COUNTY: 3 total days closed*

Closed from 5/24 to 5/25: Del Mar

Closed from 5/25 to 5/26: La Jolla

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Closed from 8/27 to 8/28: Imperial Beach

VENTURA COUNTY: 36 total days closed

Closed from 8/8 to 8/27: Ventura Keys (two beaches)

SAN MATEO COUNTY: 6 total days closed

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MENDOCINO COUNTY: 33 total days closed

MONTEREY COUNTY: 252 total days closed

SAN FRANCISCO COUNTY: No closures

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY: No closures

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1989 LOS ANGELES COUNTY: 14 total days closed

Closed from 1/23 to 1/26: 200 yards around Santa Monica Pier

Closed from 3/6 to 3/9: King Harbor south one-quarter mile

Closed from 5/2 to 5/4: Venice Pier to Imperial Avenue

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Closed from 9/26 to 9/29: One-quarter mile each side of Ashland storm drain

Closed from 11/20 to 11/21: One half-mile each side of Pulga storm drain

Closed from 12/13 to 12/15: Sunset storm drain to Temescal storm drain

SAN DIEGO COUNTY: At least 50 total days closed

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* San Diego County health officials said NRDC’s 1990 figures were severely understated.

SOURCE: Natural Resources Defense Council

(Orange County) Beach Closures

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which collected data from eight of California’s 13 coastal counties, reported there were at least 338 days in which beaches were closed in 1990. In 1989, it reported 64 days of closures in two counties surveyed. Here is a look at the number of days beaches were shut because of the presence or possibility of elevated bacteria levels.

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Orange County data is not included in the Natural Resources Defense Council national survey of beach closures caused by sewage spills. The county Health Department reported that beaches were closed for 38 days in 1990, down from 105 in 1989.

1990 ORANGE COUNTY: 38 days Jan. 17-23: Huntington State Beach/Newport Beach, Beach Boulevard to Newport Pier Jan. 24-25: Huntington State Beach near Santa Ana River mouth Feb. 20-March 4: Doheny State Beach at San Juan Creek April 18-24: Aliso Beach from Camel Point to north of Aliso Creek May 26-31: Laguna Beach at Victoria Beach June 11-12: Doheny State Beach at San Juan Creek July 17: Laguna Beach at Laguna Avenue LOS ANGELES COUNTY: 8 days Feb. 17-21: Coastline from Topanga to Palos Verdes Dec. 10-14: King Harbor South to Pearl Street SAN DIEGO COUNTY: 3 days* May 24-25: Del Mar May 25-26: La Jolla Aug. 27-28: Imperial Beach VENTURA COUNTY: 36 days Aug. 8-27: Ventura Keys (two beaches) SAN MATEO COUNTY: 6 days MENDOCINO COUNTY: 33 days MONTEREY COUNTY: 252 days SAN FRANCISCO COUNTY: No closures SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY: No closures

1989 ORANGE COUNTY: 105 days Jan. 20-29: Aliso Beach at Aliso Creek Jan. 31-Feb. 7: Laguna Main Beach, Myrtle to Cleo streets March 3-7: Laguna Beach at Crescent Bay March 28-April 20: Aliso Beach at Aliso Creek June 22-July 25: Aliso Beach at Aliso Creek July 9-12: Newport Bay near Reuben’s Restaurant July 23-26: Laguna Beach from Legion to Thalia streets Sept. 5-7: Laguna Beach, Brooks to Oceanfront streets Sept. 19-22: Laguna Beach at Anita Street Oct. 13-17: Laguna Beach at Cleo Street Oct. 21-24: Emerald Bay LOS ANGELES COUNTY: 14 days Jan. 23-26: 200 yards around Santa Monica Pier March 6-9: King Harbor south one-quarter mile May 2-4: Venice Pier to Imperial Avenue Sept. 26-29: one-quarter mile each side of Ashland storm drain Nov. 20-21: one-half mile each side of Pulga storm drain Dec. 13-15: Between Sunset and Temescal storm drains SAN DIEGO COUNTY: At least 50 days * San Diego County health officials said NRDC’s 1990 figures were severely understated.

Source: Natural Resources Defense Council

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