Plastic Paradise

Heal the Bay's Kirsten James, left, and Sarah Sikich, right, enjoy a shave ice with their fellow eco-activist Leslie Tamminen. The group participated in the just concluded International Marine Debris Conference in Hawaii.

Today’s guest bloggers are Kirsten James, Heal the Bay’s Water Quality Director, and Sarah Sikich, Coastal Resources Director. Here they discuss their experience traveling to Hawaii last week and participating in the 5th International Marine Debris Conference.

Sarah: It’s unreal – spending a week in Hawaii for work! Not to mention meeting some of the leading researchers, government agencies, environmental organizations, and explorers working on marine debris and plastic pollution issues. Was there any research presented that you found particularly memorable?

Kirsten: It’s hard to pick just one presentation but one that stands out is the work being done by Dr. Jan A. van Franeker from the Netherlands.  He gave several revealing talks on his research with Northern Fulmars, a marine bird species. He found that in the North Sea, the “average” Northern Fulmar flies around with 0.3 grams of plastic in the stomach, rising to 0.6 grams in more polluted areas.  If you scale this bird up to the size of an average human, that would equal 30 grams of plastic, resembling a lunchbox full of plastic sheets, foams, threads and fragments!  How about you, did any of the presentations stand out?

Sarah: I’m glad to see how much research is being focused on endocrine disruptors and plastics. Many researchers in the field have raised concerns about whether chemicals associated with plastics are leaching into the tissues of wildlife and fish ingesting this trash. Previously little work had been done to determine whether this was actually occurring. Several scientists presented preliminary research at the conference showing that chemical plastic additives (like phthalates and Bisphenol A) and PCBs that stick to plastics are present in the tissues of animals that have ingested plastic materials. Potential hormone system disruption is also of concern. Pretty scary stuff.  But, at least we were learning about it in blissful, tropical Hawaii. How did the conference location influence your experience?

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Pound Foolish

Dumping L.A.'s Board of Public Works would stink.

City, county, state and federal budget crises are the dominant issues facing government, business and the public.  In what has become an annual event, elected officials and administrations scramble to balance budgets by coming up with policy ideas that save pennies but are more than a pound foolish.

At the federal level, cutting back EPA’s budget by up to 30% has nothing to do with fiscal prudence.  If the House was as serious about major cuts as it is about rolling back environmental protections, then eliminating tax loopholes, agribusiness and oil and gas subsidies, and reducing defense spending would be part of the dialogue on the Hill.

At the state level, Gov. Brown has proposed massive cuts of over $12 billion per year. Yet in negotiations with opposition leadership, there’s more talk about environmental rollbacks that help big business than about moving forward with an election to let the public decide what kind of California we want.
At the local level, it’s the same story.  Every few years, Heal the Bay seems to find itself in a budget fight with the city of Los Angeles to fund a full-time Board of Public Works made up of mayoral appointees.  Mayors Riordan and Hahn unsuccessfully tried to eliminate the board and now Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana is taking a run to make up for the annual $400 million shortfall the city seems to face.

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Unanswered Questions in Miami

The EPA didn't reveal new beach water quality monitoring criteria at its just concluded annual National Beach Conference. But there were other tidbits to share.

I spent last week at the EPA’s National Beach Conference in Miami, where I gave a couple of presentations, learned about the latest in beach water quality research, and heard from EPA on the upcoming criteria for measuring water quality.

EPA’s criteria haven’t been updated since 1986, and the new rules are required to be completed by the end of 2012 under a Consent Decree with the NRDC.  With the recent completion of a comprehensive research plan, EPA staff members have all the information they’ll use to develop the new criteria.

Unfortunately, within the first two hours of the conference it became clear that the EPA wasn’t far enough in criteria development to share anything new with conference participants.  Instead, we were told that the draft criteria will make their debut June 14-15 at a meeting in New Orleans.

Conference participants asked if the new criteria would be as protective as the existing ones. (Current criteria are based on an 8 in a 1,000 risk of stomach flu for swimmers at freshwater beaches and 19 in 1,000 for ocean beaches).  Also, they asked if the criteria would allow states, cities or counties to develop site-specific rules.  And would beach monitoring programs be required to use rapid methods to quantify fecal bacteria densities in a few hours rather than waiting until the next day?

All questions were left unanswered.

Despite the lack of clarity on the direction of the criteria, there were some noteworthy outcomes at the conference.

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“Rango” & Me

There are uncanny parallels between "Rango" and the author's life ... not to mention the Polanski classic "Chinatown."

As the father of an 11-year-old daughter, I end up going to a lot of movies that would never make my must-see list.  This weekend, I was one of the many parents that took in “Rango.” I actually enjoyed the film, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between my life and this latest animated feature from Nickelodeon.  As life goes on, the parallels between art and life are easier to find, but “Rango” hit pretty close to the mark.

Over 25 years ago, as a master’s student at UCLA, my field work focused on the behavioral ecology of lizards.  I know… kind of a shock for a water guy. The field site for my research on lizard escape behavior (a major theme of the film) was in beautiful Desert Center — a remote outpost off Interstate 10, halfway between Indio and Blythe. The connections between Desert Center and the fictional town of Dirt in the movie are eerie.

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Well, a Big Win for Santa Monica

Santa Monica's Water Treatment Plant

The city of Santa Monica is celebrating the return of its local water supply. In a classic David vs. Goliath case, Santa Monica took on Big Oil to restore the people’s rights to a clean, local water supply.  The combination of leaking underground gasoline storage tanks and the addition of MTBE as an oxygenate in gasoline led to massive contamination of Santa Monica’s Charnock well field in the mid 1990s. The groundwater pollution left Santa Monica completely reliant on high priced MWD water imported from the Delta and the Colorado River. Until the wells were shut off in 1996, approximately 70% of the city’s water supply came from local groundwater. After an incredibly hard fought litigation and negotiations, Shell Oil (the biggest aquifer polluter), ExxonMobil and Chevron settled with the city for about $250 million.

In a world that seems increasingly dominated by Big Oil, Santa Monica stood up to the polluters and successfully fought for one of our basic human rights: clean water.

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