The Junk in Our Trunk

The Register misreads science in order to score political points

Photo by Keith May "Junk science" is what conservatives call any research that contradicts conservative orthodoxy. Take, for instance, conservative Orange County Register columnist Steven Greenhut, who a few weeks ago dismissed as "nutty" any suggestion that sewage is bad for you.

In a March 28 column, Greenhut said a new UC Irvine study shows that the OC Sanitation District's (OCSD) 2002 decision to clean up Orange County's sewage before pumping it 4.2 miles out to sea was "a sop to vocal environmental activists who are impervious to scientific data proving them wrong." The 13-12 vote of the district's trustees to meet the tougher standard was "policy as psychology," he wrote, "a disturbing reminder of how hard it is for politicians to stand up against organized interest groups" and again—in case we missed it the first time—a gift from "weak-kneed politicians" to "environmentalists . . . impervious to any sort of rational argument." He spoke with two conservative city councilmen who, sitting on the district board at the time, voted against what's called "full secondary treatment" of the product of the county's many toilets. Placentia Councilman Norm Eckenrode told Greenhut that "environmentalist wackos" pressured spineless board members; Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes said the vote to clean up sewage "was always more about politics than science."

It's not only "nutty" to clean up our sewage before pumping it four miles off Huntington Beach, Greenhut says, but it's also expensive. District officials put the cost at about $271 million.

Greenhut has always believed the environmentalists were wrong and, well, insane, and now, he says, the new UCI study proves he's been right from the start: "The latest evidence is in," Greenhut wrote, "and it only confirms evidence that was widely available at the time of the vote."

Citing his own paper's science reporter, Greenhut says the UCI study proves the offshore sewage plume—a brownish balloon of effluent extending for miles around the business end of OCSD's pipe in the Pacific—isn't responsible for ocean pollution off Huntington Beach.

It's a pretty compelling claim, except that one of the study's authors says it's wrong. "We didn't say that," Professor Stanley B. Grant told the Weekly. "We're misquoted so much it makes my head spin."

We called Grant because, though he is just one of the study's five authors, he's the only one Greenhut cites by name. He says the study—"Locating Sources of Surf Zone Pollution: A Mass Budget Analysis of Fecal Indicator Bacteria at Huntington Beach, California"—is "silent on the question of whether OCSD should go secondary or stay primary." The study "focused instead on the landside sources" of pollution—urban runoff streaming down the Santa Ana River, across the sand at Huntington Beach and into the ocean, for instance. Conclusion: "without a doubt . . . the landside sources can put the public at risk."

So, yeah, urban runoff is a problem (so, the study suggests, is nearby Talbert Marsh). But it doesn't follow, as Greenhut suggests it does, that flushing 10 million gallons of sewage into the Pacific every hour is good for public health.

Or is it? We asked Grant, and suddenly swimming in feces and urine didn't sound so good.

Grant told us it's possible "other things are coming out" of the district's sewage pipe, things he calls "pathogens" —he uses hepatitis as an example—things that don't show up in the district's bacteria tests near shore.

So, if Grant had to clean up the water off Huntington Beach, would he tackle the problem of runoff or sewage? "In my opinion, in an ideal world, the answer would be both."

All of which turns Greenhut's thesis to shit.

Grant recommends you also speak to his UCI colleague Sunny Jiang, a professor of environmental health, science and policy. Jiang studies water-quality in the same neighborhood, and says she's found "human viruses"—the sort that Grant and the county don't test for—"near the mouth of the Santa Ana River."

"What's interesting and unique about this finding is that we're finding viruses at a time when there isn't much landside pollution input," she says. That leads her to believe that the viruses are coming "from sources other than land runoff—perhaps from the ocean side."

Jiang admits that ocean pollution is "a hard subject to address" and says "we don't have definitive answers." But she still concludes, "There's some evidence that the [Sanitation District's] plume has some implication in surf-zone pollution."

If we don't have definitive answers, is the secondary treatment of sewage the waste of money Greenhut says it is? Jiang notes that secondary treatment merely brings Orange County up to the federal EPA standard. And, no, she says, "I don't think it's a waste of money at all."

Research assistance by Sarah Callender.
 
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