Poop Chute

County agency will ask EPA to renew ocean-dumping permit

Photo by Keith MayAbout 240 million gallons of partially treated sewage—the equivalent of three Anaheim Stadiums filled to the brim with Orange County's shit, piss, table scraps, whatever—will pour into the local ocean today.

Same thing tomorrow: 240 million gallons of the grossest kind of gunk will flow from Joe Public's toilets and garbage disposals, through a huge pipe—10 feet in diameter and four and a half miles long—and into Davey Jones' Locker.

Same thing yesterday: a huge pipe—10 feet in diameter and four and a half miles long—spewing our excrement 200 feet below the sea at the almost unimaginable rate of 10 million gallons per hour.

Same thing almost every day, for years and years and years.

Yes, there is a law against this: the federal Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in 1972. It mandates that all sewage receive primary and secondary treatment before it is disbursed into waterways.

No, the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) is not breaking that law. In 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency granted the district a 301(h) waiver. This gives OCSD permission to dump substandard wastewater—in this case, a 50-50 mixture of primary- and secondary-treated sewage—into the ocean. Two times the waiver has expired, and both times OCSD has been granted extensions. The current 301(h) waiver expires in 2003, and OCSD intends to apply for another five-year extension, insisting that constantly spewing sewage into the ocean is not damaging.

This time, however, a small band of activists is mobilizing to oppose OCSD's application to extend its 301(h) waiver. The Ocean Outfall Group suggests that the constantly spewing sewage is responsible for the bacterial infestations that have repeatedly closed Orange County's beaches to swimmers and surfers during the past few years. Bolstered by a recent UC Irvine study, the group hopes to convince the EPA that Orange County ought to live up to Clean Water Act standards imposed on the rest of the country since the 1970s.

"Here it is the 21st century, and we're still trying to drag Orange County sanitation kicking and screaming into the 20th century," says Jan Vandersloot, a Newport Beach dermatologist who is a longtime activist in Orange County's water-quality issues.

Blake Anderson, general manager of OCSD, insists county sewage is carefully measured and falls well within the parameters of the waiver—which he says is justified because the sewage is dispensed into deep water and neither damages the environment nor public health.

"We spend $2 million a year on a monitoring system that looks at everything from fish populations to fish-tissue analysis to bacteria on the beach," says Anderson. "From our observations, we have maintained a balanced indigenous population of sea life, and our discharge plume has not impacted the beach's bacteria quality."

Vandersloot disagrees. "Their own reports have discovered fish around the outfall pipe with liver lesions and other abnormalities," he says. "Populations of invertebrates are different around the outfall; some are increased and some are decreased, but the point is that they are different. We disagree that 240 million gallons of sewage a day does not change the ocean environment."

Additionally, a study by UC Irvine professor Stanley Grant suggests that bacteria from the sewage plume is drawn toward the shore because of hot water discharged into the ocean by the AES power plant in Huntington Beach.

"That hypothesis is interesting," OCSD's Anderson acknowledges, "and we are going to do our own study on that idea this summer."

The UCI study has attracted the attention of the EPA, too. "We're curious about that study," says Janet Hashimoto of the EPA's regional office in San Francisco, which will consider Orange County's next application for an extension of the 301(h) waiver. "Bottom line: the sewage that goes into the ocean cannot be damaging. If it is, the situation does not warrant a waiver."

The Ocean Outfall Group, which has completed four of nine scheduled informational meetings with OCSD representatives, hopes to accumulate enough evidence of environmental damage that the district won't even bother seeking an extension.

"We want to persuade OCSD not to apply, to instead voluntarily initiate full secondary treatment of the county's sewage," says Vandersloot. "But at this point, they are resisting this all the way. Their bureaucracy is trained to say everything is fine and dandy. They say the sewage actually works to feed the fish. They are very glib about it. But we are determined not to swallow their B.S. . . . literally."

 
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