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Dr. Gold Makes the Grade

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 26 -- Dr. Mark Gold is the face of Heal the Bay. Shortly after the non-profit group was founded in 1986, he began volunteering to help fight coastal pollution. Two years later, he became the organization’s first employee, serving as its staff scientist. In 1994, Gold -- who was raised in Santa Monica -- was hired as the organization’s executive director.

Today, Gold, who holds a doctorate in environmental science and engineering from UCLA, is considered one of the state’s leading environmental advocates. In 1990, he instituted the “Beach Report Card,” which grades beach water quality and health risks at more than 450 beaches statewide. Gold also helped institute a variety of educational programs to provide public school students with a comprehensive environmental education.

At Heal the Bay, Gold helped author and pass nine important statewide environmental laws and garner hundreds of millions of dollars for coastal protection. In 2006, he was one of the first recipients of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. He also was awarded the Durfee Foundation's Stanton Fellowship 2006-07.

In an interview with The Lookout, Gold talked about the state of health of Santa Monica Bay, ongoing efforts to address pollution and the latest environmental legislation.

Q: What is the current state of the Bay and what are the biggest threats to its health today?

A: The Bay is in much better shape than in 1985. There are no more dead zones in the Bay, fish don't have tumors or fin rot, and there's been over a 90 percent reduction in sewage solids going to the Bay. Also, in the last few years, many of our beaches are cleaner and safer during the summer months. However, stormwater pollution has not been adequately addressed, and it still makes our beaches look like a landfill after every rain. Also, runoff is often toxic to aquatic life. Finally, few beaches get good grades on our Beach Report Card after a rain. In fact, the health department and Heal the Bay agree that no one should swim in the Bay within 72 hours of a storm.

Q: How is the next year shaping up legislatively for environmental bills in general, and what bills may affect the Bay specifically?

A: I don't have the numbers handy, but there are a lot of bills. I think (State Assembly member) Ted Lieu's bill addresses all of the recommendations on spill response and public notification that came out of the LA County board of supervisors. Also, Heal the Bay is sponsoring a flotilla of marine debris legislation targeting toxics in plastic, handling of plastic pellets -- known as nurdles, plastic packaging, expanding the plastics recycling redemption fee program and derelict fishing gear.

Q: There's been a lot of talk about the lack of monitoring of sewage that spills and seeps into the Bay. What dangers do they pose to the Bay and thos who swim in it and what changes are being proposed at the State, County, and City level to address this?

A: Swimming in raw sewage contaminated waters is a very well known significant health risk. At best, there is a highly elevated risk of gastroenteritis to swimmers. At worst, there could be elevated risks of hepatitis or other illnesses present in the general public. The County made strong recommendations on sewage spill response that we supported and advocated. Among the more critical recommendations are to require those responsible for the spills to notify the health department and other critical parties of the spill within two hours of the spill reaching the storm drain. The public should never unknowingly be exposed to raw sewage.

Q: How does last year's spill rank historically?

A: The Manhattan Beach spill was one of the largest ever to Santa Monica Bay at nearly 2 million gallons. The vast majority of the spill (well over 90 percent) was contained on-site at the beach.

Q: What parties are generally the biggest contributors to such spills? Can you specifically name some of the worst offenders?

A: The largest sources of sewage spills are the agencies that operate and maintain the sewer systems for the region: the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. Causes of spills include decaying infrastructure and poorly maintained or designed pump stations, construction mishaps, broken laterals, tree roots and oil and grease clogs.

Q: Often when a spill happens, the media does not report why or how the spill occurred or name the responsible party. Why not?

A: The media usually does not get that information. As we saw from the County audit, the public seldom even gets informed that a spill occurs, let alone what caused the spill.

Q: Santa Monica passed a law banning certain types of non-recyclable materials from being used in businesses because they harm the environment and the Bay. How well is that law being implemented? Has it helped locally? Have other areas since passed laws similar to Santa Monica's law?

A: The law doesn't come into effect until January of next year. I have seen that some local restaurants have switched over to more environmental food packaging, but the fast food places still haven't switched over yet. Most importantly, the California Ocean Protection Council passed a comprehensive ordinance on reducing marine debris. The resolution was approved at the OPC meeting in Santa Monica this January. The resolution included a phased toxics ban in plastic food packaging, plastic pellet spill abatement requirements and enforcement, derelict fishing gear reduction, plastic packaging requirements and an expansion of the plastics recycling redemption fee program. A comprehensive report with abatement strategies will be largely completed by the OPC this year.

Q: What else can Santa Monica do to improve marine debris conditions?

A: Enforcement of litter laws. They've been on the books for years, but they are seldom enforced. Work with restaurants and other food retail to make sure they are on the road to complying with the city's plastics ordinance.

Q: Are conditions improving or not improving with regard to the toxicity of fish in the Bay? What is it important for people who eat seafood from the Bay to know?

A: Unfortunately, conditions are remaining the same. The legacy of DDT and PCB use will remain in the Bay for at least another century. From Redondo Pier around Palos Verdes to San Pedro Bay, there are a number of species of fish that are still highly contaminated with DDT and PCBs despite the fact that DDT use in the U.S. was banned over 35 years ago. There are still over 100 tons of DDT in the sediments off of Palos Verdes. The fish off Santa Monica Pier is not nearly as contaminated, but it would be smart to avoid eating much locally caught white croaker.

Q: Are there other important topics that you feel readers should pay attention to and what are those?

A: This is plenty for now. If people want to get involved or informed, check out our web site at www.healthebay.org


"In the last few years, many of our beaches are cleaner and safer during the summer months." Mark Gold




"As we saw from the County audit, the public seldom even gets informed that a spill occurs, let alone what caused the spill."


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