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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Sludge

Air Date: Week of

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The beaches of Orange County, California have been plagued by closures due to high bacteria levels in the water. Although the source of the contamination is a mystery, officials there have just voted to upgrade the treatment level of its sewage. Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.


CURWOOD: It sounds like the environmental dark ages. But just 30 years ago, it was legal for municipalities to pipe raw sewage directly into the ocean. The Clean Water Act now prohibits that practice in most cases.

It’s a little known fact that about three dozen towns and counties nationwide are still allowed to discharge at least some of their human waste water into waterways without taking out the solids and treating the bacteria.

Orange County, California has the biggest Clean Water Act waiver. But, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet explains, that’s changing.


LOBET: Each day, sun-drenched Orange County pipes enough partially treated sewage into the ocean to fill the Rose Bowl one and a half times. It flows out the end of a pipe four and a half miles off Huntington Beach, a major tourist draw.

But a few days ago, at a public meeting that was tense and packed, the County reluctantly voted to step up treatment. It was a cliffhanger to the last vote.


LOBET: The Environmental Protection Agency continues to grant a smaller and smaller number of sewage waivers. It’s usually done when a municipality pleads financial hardship. And that was the case in Orange County where the Sanitation Board argued for years that treating all its sewage for bacteria would be too expensive. Right now, it treats half.

But a few years ago, some residents began to complain that wasn’t acceptable. Sanitation Board member Shirley McCracken.

McCRACKEN: The emails, and the faxes, and the calls were extraordinary.

LOBET: The onslaught was surprising because upgrading sewage treatment is expensive. The current estimates run $270 million over ten years. That works out to $16 a year per homeowner but could be much more for some businesses.

Orange County is known for being fiscally conservative. But Board member Beth Krom says people are increasingly willing to pay to protect what they have.

KROM: I think that we are changing here in Orange County. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that people are paying a greater premium to be a part of this community. When you invest more, you tend to want to protect that investment more. And, being the largest waste water producer west of the Mississippi, it’s not the kind of tagline you want on your company.

LOBET: There might be another reason for the outcome of this vote. Brian Brady is a Sanitation Board member. He says there’s a generation of kids in Orange County who have learned about water quality at school.

BRADY: They certainly make us confront ourselves on what we believe in. And, in fact, I was talking at the dinner table with my wife and ten year old. And my ten year old, very interested in this whole thing, and very concerned that I was going to do the right thing, which I think we did.

LOBET: One young face, familiar to local officials, is that of Frank Goldbeck of Newport Harbor High School. He testified at the sewage waiver vote. When we caught up with him, he was breaking up brush as part of an ecosystem restoration project.


LOBET: Asked why he cares about treated sewage discharges, he hikes up his t-shirt, and points to some white spots on his skin.

GOLDBECK: I actually contracted a fungus surfing in Huntington. I still have pigment malfunctions because of this fungus that I contracted. And I could feel it burning while I was in the water.

LOBET: Many people believe that Orange County’s partially treated sewage drifts towards shore, contaminating the beach. Studies have not found that link. But there are frequent beach closures due to bacterial contamination. The source of that pollution has yet to be identified.

It will take several years until all Orange County sewage is fully treated. At that point, the nation’s largest discharger of partially treated waste water will be San Diego. Controversy over that city’s sewage waiver is already brewing. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Orange County, California.




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