EPA calls for steps to save the Bay
By Jane Kay
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
Sunday, May 16, 1999
Agency concludes that dioxin menace requires stricter regulatory control
Overruling California's own environmental monitor, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that dioxins and related chemical compounds have so seriously compromised San Francisco Bay water quality that stricter regulatory control is needed to reduce their presence.
In a decision to be announced formally on Monday, EPA will make it official that dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs, and the solvent furans are high priority safety items because of the human health risk they pose to people who eat fish from the Bay.
"It's time to get serious about dioxins and PCBs," said EPA Regional Administrator Felicia Marcus, who suggested heightened controls over industrial and municipal discharges and possibly new state and federal regulations.
Giving high priority listing to dioxins, PCBs and furans was a surprise move by the EPA because the compounds are hard to control and measure in the environment. Both the state and regional water quality control boards had rejected such listing. Inclusion on the EPA's list of contaminated waterways will pressure local regulatory agencies to establish dioxin pollution standards for the Bay and may set in motion efforts to control dioxin releases at the source.
Every two years, the EPA releases a list of pollutants that impair water bodies, after consultation with the states, under the federal Clean Water Act.
This year's California list contains 472 stream segments, rivers, lakes and estuaries, many of which exceed water-quality standards for a number of pollutants. The EPA added 12 additional pollutants and 37 new water bodies statewide, including San Francisco Bay, despite their exclusion from listing by the state and regional water resources control board. EPA's review of data from the Bay persuaded its scientists that the state water board "did not provide a reasonable rationale" for excluding the Bay from its priority list. EPA added 30 Bay Area creeks to that list, including Mount Diablo, Pinole, San Pablo, Wildcat, Coyote, Alameda, San Leandro and Walnut, as well as Lake Merritt in Oakland, where floating garbage has depleted the oxygen level.
Greg Karras, a scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, called EPA's decision "a very big deal."
"It's a decision made specifically because of the health threat to subsistence fishing, and this is unique," he said. "It's an environmental justice victory from our perspective, and from EPA's perspective it's a potential national precedent."
A year ago, the California Zero Dioxin Exposure Alliance, a 40-organization coalition, asked the state and regional water quality control boards to designate dioxins and furans as a threat to the Bay but was rebuffed.
Board members argued that the dioxin problem should be dealt with on a national basis, because the fish contamination in San Francisco Bay isn't any worse than in many other parts of the country.
Karras noted that his organization subsequently petitioned EPA "for exactly this kind of action, because the state agencies were unwilling to listen to our plan to eliminate dioxin completely — and more cheaply than it can be controlled."
The EPA decision means that "now (the state) has to listen to us and prove that its solution is better. It will open up the dialogue."
Making the Bay fishable
Short term, the EPA decision "ups the priority for controlling dioxin." Long term, he said, it's a step toward controlling dioxin releases at the source. "The goal is to make the Bay fishable so that people can fish the Bay for food in health." EPA also added the Stockton Deep Water Channel to its priority list, because of excessive dioxin and PCB levels, and the Santa Clara River, which was found to have excessive chlorides.
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board's request for adding exotic species as a threat to the Bay also won EPA's approval.
Ballast water in vessels and humans bringing in foreign animals and plants have created the problem over the last century.
Because these non-natives have no natural predators, they can eradicate indigenous species, which contribute to biological diversity. Some problem predators are the red fox, which eat California clapper rails, and Asian clams, mitten and green crabs and zebra mussels which crowd out natives and compete for food supplies.
The EPA said its listing of dioxins and the others wasn't intended to redirect the state's resources away from exotic species, mercury or PCBs, the state's top priorities.
The EPA says it may take several years to complete analyses and will work with the state and local governments to monitor the Bay.
Urgent health risk
But establishing a priority "is intended to focus attention on an urgent human health risk issue and help initiate needed monitoring and assessment activities. The efforts should begin now," the agency said in a prepared statement.
In the case of dioxins, scientists say minute concentrations escape from autos and factories in particles of smoke during combustion and float down and settle on land and the Bay.
The EPA bans dioxins at levels lower than it is technically able to detect in the lab. Dioxin binds DNA and disrupts enzymes, hormones and growth, leading to cancer, developmental and reproductive damage, diabetes and immune system impairment.
San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Clara County have passed resolutions directing officials to find substitutes for chlorine-bleached paper, PVC plastic and other products that release dioxin during the manufacturing process.
Eric Brazil of The Examiner staff contributed to this report.
©1999 San Francisco Examiner
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