San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

State will miss pollution deadline; Sediment case may head back to court

Stockton Record - July 07, 2005
By Dana Nichols

State will miss pollution deadline; Sediment case may head back to court
Stockton Record 7/7/05
By Dana Nichols, staff writer

SACRAMENTO -- California next month will fail to meet a court-ordered deadline to propose standards for pollution in sand and mud at the bottom of bays and estuaries.

Even when the proposed standards are finished some time in November, they will be incomplete, because they won't address sediment in the sloughs and channels of the Delta, said Chris Beegan, an environmental scientist for the State Water Resources Control Board.

That failure will likely send the matter back to court, where environmentalists will ask for more to be done.

Poisons, ranging from household pesticides to chemicals likely spilled from old electrical transformers, show up in the silt at the bottom of waterways in Stockton and the rest of California. But many hot spots -- like the muck in Stockton's Smith Canal which is polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs -- never get cleaned up, in part because there are no clear standards for doing so.

PCBs can accumulate in fish and pose a cancer risk to humans who eat them. That's one reason that signs posted in downtown Stockton warn anglers against eating their catches.

Beegan on Wednesday reported on the past year's efforts to set standards for sediment but did not initially offer any explanation for why the Aug. 5 deadline will pass without a public proposal.

That prompted questions from water board members.

"I thought you were supposed to circulate a proposed objective to the public by that date," said board member Gerald Secundy.

Beegan said that setting standards for pollution in underwater muck has proved to be complex and that a number of scientists are carefully reviewing proposals to make sure they will work.

"We're three or four months behind schedule on fairly important elements of the policy," Beegan said.

The late, incomplete job comes after years of work and millions of dollars.

A California law on the books since 1989 requires the state to set standards for sediment pollution as needed to protect drinking water and living organisms.

But state government put the work off for years. In 1991, for example, the State Water Resources Control Board decided it didn't have enough money to do the needed research.

In 2001, environmental groups, including Stockton-based DeltaKeeper filed a lawsuit to force the state to get moving.

A court agreed and ordered the state to begin, even setting a time line and specifying that the Delta would have to be considered along with major ocean-water bays.

In 2002, the State Water Resources Control Board allocated $2.5 million for the work.

Board spokeswoman Liz Kanter said the agency knows it should also set standards for the Delta and will do so soon, although she could not specify a time.

Sediment standards are more complex than water standards, because the composition of the mud, sand and gravel varies wildly as does the sensitivity of the tiny animals that live in it.

The agency is developing a three-pronged system for setting allowable pollution levels:
- Whether pollution levels in the sediment kill living things in lab tests.
- The amount of known poisonous chemicals in sediment.
- The health of little clams, crabs and other creatures that normally live in sediment.

"For the time being ,we are only working on marine bays where we do have adequate data for three lines of evidence," Kanter said. "We just don't have that sort of robust data in the Delta at this time."

DeltaKeeper's Bill Jennings said that after so many years of work, he can forgive the agency for being a few months late.

But he said he wouldn't tolerate the failure to set limits for pollution in sediment in the Delta and would return to court if necessary to force action.

"That's a clear violation of the court's order," Jennings said. #

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