Healing San Pedro Bay

Some of the new regulations designed to clean up San Pedro Bay are more fork than spoon unfortunately.

Santa Monica Bay pollution may make the headlines, but the pollution in San Pedro Bay is a lot worse.  Last week the Regional Water Quality Control Board made an attempt to heal our other local bay by passing the most comprehensive and complicated Total Maximum Daily Load in California history.  (TMDLs are water body-specific pollutant limits.) The TMDL covered 79 different impairments of  Dominguez Channel and the Greater Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor (San Pedro Bay) waters and contaminants, including heavy metals like mercury, lead and copper, DDT, PCBs, toxicity and petroleum hydrocarbons.

The bottom line is that there are now five species of fish in the Bay that the state recommends you avoid eating and another 11 that you shouldn’t eat more than once a week.  Also, there are numerous toxic hotpots and the benthic ecology (bottom-dwelling animals) at some of those locations is highly degraded.

Although this TMDL was one of the most important in the entire Consent Decree between the environmental community and the EPA, it was delayed until 2011 because of its complexity and the number of industrial heavy hitters that are regulated by the action, including such players as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, numerous oil companies, the Montrose Chemical Co. (the folks who brought us DDT), and numerous upstream cities with intense industrial use. Perhaps the biggest reason for the lateness of the TMDL was the complex and time-consuming modeling (five years in the making) of San Pedro Bay and the Dominguez Channel required to develop the regulation.

The Regional Board voted 5-0 to approve the staff recommended TMDL over strong opposition from Montrose and the Coalition for Practical Regulation cities. Montrose and the CPR cities opposed the TMDL because of cost concerns, and they actually claimed that they shouldn’t have to pay for the Dominguez Channel and San Pedro Bay cleanup because they already had to pay millions of dollars under the Superfund and Natural Resources damages lawsuit in the 1990s. In other words, “Let the locals eat toxic fish!”

Fortunately, the DDT/PCBs case involved the DDT manufacturing site in Torrance and the contaminated sediments off the Palos Verdes shelf, not San Pedro Bay.  Also, unlike the 1990s settlement, the TMDL was developed as a requirement to restore impaired waters under the the Clean Water Act, not for Superfund and Natural Resources damages.

In general, the Ports were supportive as were the cities of L.A. and Long Beach, and Exxon-Mobil. While some Heal the Bay concerns were addressed by the Regional Board, many still remain. So, although Heal the Bay didn’t fully support the TMDL, we did not formally oppose it either.

Frankly, I have serious doubts that the implementation of these TMDL requirements will result in fish that are safe to eat, restored benthic ecology, and water and sediments that aren’t toxic to marine life.  Moreover, the compliance period is 20 years from now, which insures that an entire generation will grow up eating fish that pose significant cancer and other toxicological risks.

But, here’s what the approved TMDL does do. The regulation establishes tough water quality targets for a wide variety of pollutants.  While, the water quality targets don’t apply during dry weather, they do apply to nearly all the significant rainstorms greater than a tenth of an inch.

The TMDL also sets fish tissue toxicity targets, but there are still loopholes that could lead to continued non-compliance with the targets at worst, or further delays past the 20-year compliance deadline.  The implementation milestones include a requirement for the Ports and other dischargers to identify toxic hot spots in the Bay within the next couple of years, including a comprehensive plan for cleaning up the two worst toxic hot spots, both in the Port of L.A.: Consolidated Slip and Fish Harbor.

This TMDL was also the first to use contaminated Sediment Quality Objectives (SQOs) in California.  When the State Water Board approved the latest version of the controversial SQOs, the state made clear that they would be used for identifying toxic hot spots.  Like using a fork to eat soup, SQOs were never designed to be used as cleanup targets to restore marine life degraded by toxic sediments.

Although Heal the Bay fought against the inappropriate use of SQOs, the Regional Board approved them as part of the TMDL anyway.  To make matters worse, the Regional Board even provided explicit language that SQOs were not to be used for harbor maintenance dredging, a dire environmental need for contaminated sediment management because so many port maintenance projects dredge up toxic sediments.

What’s next for San Pedro Bay?  That remains to be seen.  At least this TMDL makes it clear that the fish is supposed to be safe to eat in the Bay.  Also, San Pedro Bay’s toxic hotspots, especially Consolidated Slip and Fish Harbor, are finally a focus of attention and will likely be cleaned up eventually.

However, given the complexity and ambiguity of the TMDL, an incomplete implementation plan, a scheduled TMDL reopener in six years, and numerous compliance loopholes, the chances of eating safe, San Pedro Bay-caught fish in the next two decades is only slightly better than the Lakers’ chances of a three-peat this year.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the detailed info on this region. Regarding the fishing of bottom feeders like spiny lobster, is there any toxicity information about the benthic ecology as you refer?

  2. Thanks for spreading the word regarding the DDT/PCBs contamination off the Palos Verdes Shelf. For those who fish off piers between Seal Beach and Santa Monica, it is important to be aware of the local contaminated fish. If you would like to learn more about fish contamination and how to protect your health, check out pvsfish.org

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