License to Kill

toxicitystudy_cover_150x195On January 8, 2009, Heal the Bay released a report on the current state of the aquatic toxicity program in the Los Angeles region.  The report took about a year and a half to put together and never could have happened without an enormous amount of help from local Los Angeles Regional Water Board staff in getting mountains of data for our review. 

As you may have heard, the results are not pretty – a lot of the effluent coming from local sewage treatment plants and refineries is toxic to aquatic life.


Discharge permits have requirements to test effluent for toxicity on aquatic life such as water fleas, fathead minnows, sea urchins, kelp, crustaceans and other organisms. These requirements are in place because there are 50,000 chemicals in use at any given time and dischargers are only required to monitor about a hundred of them.  That leaves a big gap in protecting aquatic life that is supposed to be filled by the toxicity testing requirements — the safety net of the Clean Water Act.

The only problem is that the system is completely failing.  About 100 instances of toxic effluent per year in the LA region over the last 8 years demonstrates the point. The California State Water Board has been dragging its feet on setting a standardized toxicity policy with numeric effluent limits for nearly five years.  Meanwhile, regional water boards continue to put out permits without enforceable toxicity limits because the state water board has tied their hands. On top of that, dischargers seldom determine what is causing the toxicity to aquatic life and they almost never take efforts to get rid of the sources of toxicity. In short, other than the toxicity tests themselves, there is no other aspect of the program that is working well.

Bottom line: without our knowledge, every chemical du jour, drug, antibiotic, or new pesticide that hits the market will end up in our rivers, lakes and coastal waters if treatment processes don’t reduce them in the wastewater. The toxicity test results just aren’t being adequately used to protect aquatic life in the LA Region, and probably throughout the entire state of California.  That has to change.  Too many of California’s aquatic ecosystems are highly degraded and discharges of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater is only exacerbating the situation.

The future looks more promising than the past.  The State water Board said they will come up with a toxicity policy this spring and senior staff has made it clear that numeric effluent limits are critical to the policy.  In the mean time, Heal the Bay will continue to push the State Board to move forward and for the Regional Board to make toxicity identification and elimination a higher priority.

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