For nearly a year, OC Sanitation chief Blake Anderson has told his 25-member board to "wait for the science" before concluding whether his agency's sewage—which has produced a fecal plume the size of Garden Grove floating off the coast of Huntington and Newport beaches—is responsible for chronic beach closures.
But on May 15, the science arrived, and it seemed no one knew what to make of it.
Anderson's $5.1 million taxpayer-funded study was supposed to determine whether the bacterial infestations that keep closing Orange County beaches can be traced to a federal waiver his district uses to avoid fully treating the quarter-billion gallons of sewage it pumps into the ocean every day.
All sewage dumped into public waterways must meet standards set out in the 1972 Clean Water Act. But the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) has always asked for and received federal permission—technically known as a 301 (h) waiver—to ignore the standard. Critics say the waiver accounts for the sprawling fecal plume that sometimes washes ashore.
Anderson's report was supposed to kill that argument and prove that beach closures have nothing to do with his sewage. But the report was five months late, still incomplete and admittedly inconclusive.
That didn't stop a long panel of scientists from using three hours and a multimedia presentation to spell it out. When they were done—except for all the work they don't expect to finish until October—OCSD director and Fullerton City Councilman Don Bankhead raised his hand to ask the obvious question: "Is there any reason that we should not apply for another 301 (h) waiver?"
While the scientists looked bewildered, Anderson and OCSD chairman Norm Eckenrode reacted as if Bankhead had pulled the pin on a hand grenade. They interrupted before anyone could answer, arguing that Bankhead's question was inappropriate.
"Why do you object to it?" barked Bankhead.
"Because it sounds like it's a political-policy-type deal," Eckenrode answered as Anderson nodded. "The scientists provide the science, but we decide the policy."
Bankhead became more agitated—and incredulous. "When we cast our vote," he said, "the testimony of these scientists is what we are going to cite to defend it."
By that measure, the scientists didn't give the OCSD directors much for their $5.1 million. At the end of her PowerPoint presentation, lead scientist Marlene Noble said, "We have not yet found a connection between coastal ocean processes and bacterial contaminants on the beaches." Later, under questioning, she acknowledged that the opposite could be true: there's no way to know whether bacteria from the sewage plume ever reaches the beach.
The study barely addressed the issue that prompted it, a UC Irvine study by Dr. Stanley Grant. He suggested that sewage flushed into the ocean may reach the beach when the AES energy plant in Huntington Beach sucks in water to cool its machinery. The AES plant was fully operational for only one-and-a-half days of the 12 days monitored in the new study.
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Another political controversy erupted when scientists revealed they were not looking for all signs of bacterial contamination, only contamination in amounts above a looser state standard.
"There may be bacteria transported from the plume at levels lower than those ascribed by law," said a board of scientists that reviewed the study findings. "For scientific purposes, it is better to study contamination at lower levels."
However inconclusive, the survey may have bought Anderson what he needed most: time. Because of Anderson's wait-for-the-science chant, only five weeks remain until the district board's June 26 target date for voting on its 301 (h) waiver application. That doesn't leave much opportunity for opponents to mount a campaign.
"This 'wait for the science' strategy delayed and hampered the 25 various cities and agencies in the district from considering detailed presentations from citizens who wanted to show the cities the science that had been developed over the past 17 years," said Jan Vandersloot, director of the Ocean Outfall Group, an association of community volunteers who have been fighting the waiver. "Our strategy now is to go back to the cities and agencies and ask that they support a resolution against the waiver."