Wipe Out

Officials failed to report high bacteria levels during July surf contest

Photo by Myles RobinsonFor at least one day during July's U.S. Open and Gotcha Pro surf contest, county officials allowed surfers to enter the waves at Huntington Beach, even though water tests showed bacterial levels at the beach exceeded state limits.

Water-quality reports obtained by the Weekly show that on July 27, Orange County Sanitation District experts found high enterococci bacteria levels at a spot near Huntington Street, just south of the Huntington Pier, where 700 surfers competed July 19 through Aug. 1. A new state law effective the day before should have led to closure of the beach, and perhaps the contest.

That state law, Assembly Bill 411, requires the sanitation district to test for three forms of bacteria rather than just one and to report the results of those tests to county public-health officials daily rather than weekly.

Instead, reports of high bacteria levels from the July 27 test did not reach the county Health Care Agency's top water-quality specialist until Aug. 2. By then, the daily testing and reports revealed that levels of the enterococci bacteria had returned to normal.

After searching the district's telephone logs, spokesperson Michelle Tuchman said she "can't tell for certain if we called it in or didn't."

If the sanitation district had acted according to the new law and according to its state permit, the July 27 test results should have arrived at the office of Larry Honeybourne, the program chief of the county's water-quality section, on July 28. Honeybourne says, "We would have posted signs at [Huntington Street]," closing the beach.

Even closing that part of the beach might not have kept surfers dry. Honeybourne says state regulations don't require testing everywhere on the beach, just at selected points such as Huntington Street and the next closest site, 17th Street, which lies 6,000 feet to the north. Unless bacteria levels at both places rise above the state maximums, the sanitation district is not required to test at points in between, including the crowded surf zone near the Huntington Beach Pier, where Gotcha Pro surfers competed. Water tests at 17th Street remained within state limits throughout the contest.

Ian Cairns, event director for the Gotcha Pro and the U.S. Open, seemed surprised to learn of the high bacteria counts just south of the contest. He says officials didn't contact him with the results.

Cairns said the revelation was "obviously a major concern," but he skirted suggestions that the contest should have been shut down. "I don't think it's fair to single out Huntington Beach," he said. "I live in Aliso Viejo, and I can smell it. Why doesn't the sanitation department fix these problems? There are problems in all areas. As a surfer and promoter, I'm concerned every day of the week."

Exposure to the bacteria the county tests for can cause skin infections and mild to intense intestinal illness. It's impossible to know whether anyone entered the water when the beach ought to have been closed, and it's more difficult to determine whether anyone who may have entered the water actually got sick. Though county officials track ocean-related illness, few people with raging diarrhea are likely to think about public health.

"I've had dozens of people calling me with health problems [related to the ocean]," said Gordon LaBedz, a physician and member of the Surfrider Foundation. "When you get sick, do you call Larry Honeybourne? When people get sick, they call our national office in San Clemente. We don't do anything with the calls other than say, 'Oh, yeah, bummer.'"

 
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