REGULATORY ALPHABET SOUP IS HEALTH FOOD
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The July 4 crowd at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro was in the thousands. I wondered how many of them ever heard the terms NPDES or SU.S.MP? Yet these obscure acronyms, almost never reported in the local press, are vitally important to the quality of the water that beachgoers splash in so naively.
For the desperately curious, NPDES refers to the National Pollutants Discharge Elimination System, a requirement of the federal Clean Water Act. More about it later, but for the moment it is enough to identify it as a federally required water quality program that is administered by state and regional administrative bodies.
Cabrillo Beach is one of the most polluted local beaches. According to the environmentalist organization Heal the Bay (healthebay.org) which publishes water quality ratings, Cabrillo Beach generally has received grades of F. The failing grades are based on measured levels of toxic indicators in the water such as coliform bacteria. The beach report cards receive substantial coverage in the local press.
Cabrillo Beach is inside the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor, hence subject to the discharge of chemical pollutants, cannery waste, and even marine toilets that either lawfully or illicitly get into the water. There are dozens of tons of DDT deposits at the bottom of the bay due to long-ago discharges from a now closed chemical plant.
Rainwater runoff is another major issue because the rain washes through the urban landscape, taking with it oil, rubber and animal droppings, flowing into storm drains and ultimately washing into the bay.
The harbor is a complex system with many toxic inputs, a basin that empties its chemical and bacterial wastes into the ocean more slowly than we might wish, and some uncertain level of detoxification by aquatic plants and microorganisms within the harbor itself.
That's quite a mouthful to say, much less to understand. Even if it is possible to understand the system to some sufficient level, it is then the responsibility of government agencies to develop workable programs to control pollution. Not just develop, but oversee and enforce.
What do we learn from our local news outlets about the regulatory system? Here is a hint: When I attended meetings where government regulators talked about their programs, it was different from anything I might have imagined from reading the local newspapers.
Fortuitously, on the same day those thousands of vacationers lined the beach, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on water quality regulation. Written by Miguel Bustillo and titled "Polluted Waters Trigger Call for Change," it is the lead article in Sunday's section B. It goes on for 43 column inches, describing in detail the political infighting over whether the governor or the legislature will ask for organizational reform of the state's regulatory system.
The Times piece is actually pretty good as these articles go. It quotes leaders in government, environmental organizations and members of regulatory bodies as it explores the politics of water quality. Will a panel the governor appointed find changes in the regulatory system that need to be made? How well is the system working anyway?
But as usual, we get lots of peoples' opinions as to how things are working rather than the hard details of what actually happens within the system. The chairman of the state water panel is quoted as to his opinion. An industry advocacy group is allowed to have its say. There is speculation as to what the governor may recommend.
Nowhere do we see the term NPDES. Federal law requires that factories and plants which dump pollutants into our public waters have to have an NPDES permit. This involves their going through a process in which a governmental agency determines that they are obeying the law. Nowhere in our press coverage do we get any indication of what the process is actually like at the nuts and bolts level. What is it like for a business in terms of applying for and receiving the NPDES permit? Does the system actually result in cleaner water? Is the improvement worth the cost?
What is missing from the news is any description of the practical details of the system as it functions in the real world. How do the multiple agencies charged with overseeing air and water quality work together?
What does the term TMDL mean? How about SU.S.MP? What do they mean to the beachgoer and what amount of money, time and aggravation do they mean to business owners? Do the small businesses have the same regulatory burden as the giant oil refineries and factories?
These are important questions which have major political ramifications, yet we are treated in the daily news to the standard treatment. First, the horse race: Who is winning the ear of the governor? Second, the opposing quotes: John Smith says the system is a mess, but Jane Jones says we are making great strides.
When I attended recent meetings where government regulators spoke about their work, I learned things that don't get said in the newspapers. For example, it is an article of faith among antigovernment complainers that bureaucrats are lazy, stupid people who mostly engage in turf battles with other agencies even as they accomplish nothing. (This is certainly the tone of the local talk radio hosts.) So far this is not what I have seen.
At a presentation on the development of something called a TMDL, I was surprised and impressed at how complex the issues are, how well the government scientists had done their evaluations and how logical and practical the proposed approach looks.
By the way, TMDL stands for Total Maximum Daily Load. The ability of the harbor to withstand added pollutants without becoming infectious and toxic is what TMDL is about. Over the next couple of years, the regulators, so hated and feared in antigovernment lore, are going to figure out how much trash and poison the various "point sources" are to be allowed to unload into our waters. Rather than saying zero tolerance to pollution, the bureaucrats are working hard to figure out how liberal the system can be without being downright lethal.
Add another acronym to the mix and it gets even more complicated. The Standard Urban Storm Water Mitigation Plan (SU.S.MP) attempts to deal with all the toxics that come down to the harbor in rain water runoff. It's not a trivial issue, as surfers can attest. After each rain, toxic bacteria levels go up enormously in coastal waters; epidemiological surveys confirm that surfers and swimmers suffer increased levels of stomach and respiratory ailments when they expose themselves to these contaminants.
The government agencies which oversee the health of the waters face a complicated melange of problems and have to do their work using the legal tools that are available. Watching them discuss their work, it is obvious that the issues are technically complex and at first glance it appears that the regulators are working capably to balance all the demands appropriately.
This is not what you will read in the papers because the technicalities are not what get reported. It is not really any different than the standard approach to scientific stories discussed here last week. These water quality issues are, after all, just one more part of an increasingly technical world, and reporters are still for the most part writing the John says, Mary says story.
The public deserves to know what these programs are, and someone should make the effort to explain it to them.
I am indebted to Kathryn Curtis from the Port of Los Angeles Environmental Management department for giving an informative presentation on NPDES and SU.S.MP, and to Debra Babcock-Doherty, also Port of Los Angeles staff, for providing me with detailed notes of the presentation.