Sleuths seek source of Malibu pollution |

Sleuths seek source of Malibu pollution

Noaki Schwartz
Damian Dovarganes / The Associated Press / A running drainage pipe is seen in Paradise Cove in Malibu last month.

MALIBU (AP) – The mystery: Just whose waste is befouling the most celebrity-saturated stretch of California coast?

The suspects: Malibu residents whose septic tanks might let what gets flushed down the toilet flow down the hills and into the Pacific.

The strategy: DNA testing and a pledge, if need be, to get court warrants to inspect leaky tanks buried beneath the backyards of Hollywood stars.

“This is going to get messy,” predicts Mark Pestrella, the Los Angeles County public works official tasked with the project.

Loyalty to septic system runs deep in a city that was incorporated to stop construction of a sewer line. Residents who fiercely deny that their tanks are the source of ocean bacteria also fiercely guard their privacy and their right to flush the estimated 2,400 septic tanks in a city strung along 25 miles of coast.

After decades of wrangling, county officials are promising to get tough – threats of hefty fines by clean water regulators were an important push.

Over the next few months, investigators will begin testing sea water. If DNA tests show waste is human and not from, say, raccoons or coyote, they’ll follow the trail up creeks that traverse neighborhoods in Malibu, where clean water advocates such as Pierce Brosnan and Ted Danson live.

Where the tests show a concentration of human waste, inspectors will sleuth out the source. Though they won’t request DNA samples from residents to match waste with its human source, they say they may ask a judge for authority to inspect tanks of property owners who bar them from taking samples.

“It is a big deal that the county is now saying ‘We’re willing to go on to properties to see what the source of fecal contamination is,”‘ said Mark Gold, executive director of the local environmental group Heal the Bay.

Malibu leaders have argued that pollution comes from a wastewater treatment plant, storm runoff and bird droppings. The lack of a sewer system limits development and preserves rustic details amid million-dollar homes. Oak-shaded private paths that wind through the canyons and spill onto the beaches have attracted numerous environmentally minded celebrities over the years including Sting and Tom Hanks.

At least one Malibu resident believes septic tanks aren’t the problem. Actress and animal rights activist Pamela Anderson said that the real polluter is animal agriculture, such as chicken farms.

“When the results of these tests come back, I’ll bet that once again we’ll find that it’s people’s meat addiction, not their septic tanks, is causing this pollution,” Anderson wrote in an e-mail through her publicist. “The best thing any of us can do to fight pollution is to adopt a vegetarian diet.”

County officials initially will focus on properties with heavier commode traffic, such as restaurants and Barbra Streisand’s old estate.

In 1993, the singer donated her property to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state organization that has held weddings, conferences and public tours at the 22-acre estate. Conservancy spokeswoman Dash Stolarz said the site has a sophisticated septic system but still hasn’t hosted a wedding in two years and in June temporarily halted tours.

If county officials locate suspect systems, they’ll inform the Los Angeles Water Quality Board. The board could fine homeowners or require them to upgrade their systems at an estimated cost of $30,000.

Board president H. David Nahai said he’s optimistic that residents will want to comply with the investigation.

“The very cachet of Malibu and the high property values they enjoy are dependent upon a clean ocean,” he said.

Some of the areas’ most famous spots, including legendary Surfrider Beach, have repeatedly received poor grades in Heal the Bay’s annual beach report card. Most contamination happens during winter when heavy rains overload storm drain and sewage systems, washing waste directly into the sea. Swimming in such waters can cause gastrointestinal, respiratory and other illnesses.

Pollutants in Santa Monica Bay have been a problem for decades. The water quality drastically declined in the 20th century as the Los Angeles area boomed and dumped sewage and trash into the ocean. In 1985, the director of Los Angeles County’s health services declared septic tanks a health hazard after 12 miles of coast were closed for more than two months because of overflows.

Water quality has improved through programs mandated by the Clean Water Act and the dogged efforts of various conservation groups. A major boost came in September, when the water board decided to fine Los Angeles County and municipalities surrounding Santa Monica Bay up to $10,000 a day if they don’t meet clean water standards.

Still, skeptics see the DNA testing program, which will cost an estimated $1 million, as a delay tactic that will let the county blame Malibu.

“It’s time for us to find real solutions to our bacteria problems,” said Tracy Egoscue, who heads the Santa Monica Baykeeper, “and stop chasing ghosts up the watershed.”

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