Pollution Politics Persist

by Carolyn Chase


hy is a fashion statement more newsworthy than pollution? Maybe it's because fashion changes while pollution persists. Nearly two years ago relevant agencies released a study: "Final Report on
Chemistry, Toxicity, and Benthic (at the bottom) Community Conditions in Sediments of the San Diego Bay Region." This study of three estuaries in the San Diego Region - San Diego Bay, Mission Bay, and the Tijuana Estuary - characterized the general state of sediments in the bays, and located toxic sediment hot spots.

San Diego Bay appears beautiful, but looks can be deceiving. The report found significant contamination of San Diego Bay sediments. San Diego Bay rated the second most toxic of 18 bays studied in the nation - second only to Newark, NJ, in terms of the extent of toxicity exhibited throughout the Bay.

The main chemicals of concern in San Diego Bay are copper, mercury, zinc, total chlordane, total PCBs, and PAHs poly-aromatic hydrocarbons - oil basically. Contaminated sediments pose a substantial threat to aquatic life, wildlife, fisheries, and human health. Fish and bottom-dwelling creatures can suffer disease, death, reproductive failure, or impaired growth upon exposure to pollutants in the sediment. Trace metals (i.e., copper, mercury, zinc) in the sediments are particularly harmful because they persist in the marine environment and bioaccumulate up the food chain, traveling from marine organisms to fish then to humans.

The data clearly showed that the most toxic areas are located adjacent to 32nd Street Naval Station (7th St. channel), NASSCO, Southwest Marine, Continental, Campbell Shipyards.

But while the science shows them to be virtual dead zones, and though the regulating authorities and industries have agreed cleanups were necessary since 1990 - the Regional Board chose to only declare one of the hot spots (7th street channel) a high priority.

Which brings us to the politics of pollution.

The Bay Protection and Toxic Cleanup Program was established in 1989 by the State Water Resources Control Board to require Regional Water Quality Control Boards to develop regional hot spot cleanup plans. The State Board will then incorporate the regional plans into a consolidated statewide cleanup plan. But BPTCP does not mandate cleanups and is set to expire in June of 1999.

So what's the status of cleaning up our local legacy of pollution?

The State Board developed guidelines and criteria for identifying hot spots. These included specific toxicity hits, degraded benthic (bottom of the bay) communities, and elevated levels of chemicals. Interestingly, the analysis used in San Diego for determining toxicity was the least protective of any region in California. It took a lot of marine life being killed in the studies before it would pass a threshold for qualifying for "toxic." San Diego used a survival cutoff of 52%, as opposed to other regions that had a cutoff of 37%. This means that in San Diego 52% of marine life had to die before the area was designated toxic, whereas in other regions only 37% of marine life had to die to designate the area as toxic. Due to the more conservative cutoff, less areas were designated as toxic in San Diego than would have been deemed toxic in other regions.

With more than 20 high priority hot spots in the seven California coastal regions and lower standards, San Diego still has five hot spots. The entire San Francisco Bay is designated as a hot spot and has an additional ten high priority spots LA has seven hot spots, four being a high priority. Regardless of the science and even though our sites are more polluted, the San Diego Regional Board's political appointees have only declared one a high priority.

What does this mean practically and politically speaking? Only high priority sites require plans for cleanup and prevention of future contamination.

A high priority designation means that the Regional Board is required to evaluate the site and identify remediation options as well as develop prevention plans. But even this doesn't actually require a clean-up. The plan becomes a screening process to identify the problem areas and help them identify their cleanup priorities.
Only high priority hot spots require the answers be pursued. Without having the data and a plan, how will the Regional Board ensure that they will not become contaminated again in the future?

What about actually cleaning things up?

The Regional Board has the power to initiate clean-ups through its enforcement authority under the California Water Code. They can issue clean-up and abatement orders at any time. They have the data to do it.

What prevents them from doing it?
They say they want to make sure who the responsible parties are and how much they are going to make them clean-up. It does require analysis and evaluation. This is why the high priority designation is key. It makes it that much easier to get the job done by requiring the next needed steps in the evaluation process. So therefore one could conclude that the Regional Board doesn't want to get that job done.

Why not just leave sediments in place? The sediments are a source of pollution at the bottom of the food chain. In addition, wave and boat motion moves sediments around and they become an ongoing pollution source. What should happen to the contaminated sediments? They need to be dredged and then likely taken to a landfill.

The State Board is creating a consolidated clean-up plan. They are going to develop one list for the entire state. San Diego, with only one high priority hot spot, looks pretty healthy, right? We don't need money or resources? This state plan comes out for public review and comments are due to the State Water Resources Control Board to by June 3rd.

Lost in the flurry of rules and permits is any urgency whatsoever about directing or increasing resources to reduce or eliminate pollution. The goal of clean water and healthy water ecosystems is currently still looked at as idealistic ­ not realistic ­ and the priorities of San Diego's Regional Board seem focused on keeping polluters happy and therefore, evidently, the pollution in place and our political system has supported that. But we need a Board that works for the health of San Diego Bay. Our new Governor should appoint Regional Board members who are serious about safeguarding water quality and restoring the Bay's health.