Saturday, August 18 , 2018, 3:45 pm | Partly Cloudy 74º


Ron Fink: Does Storm Water Residue Contain Hazardous Materials?

A reader recently took me to task for saying in a recent opinion that Montecito flood debris “has been purged of hazardous material” before it’s deposited on local beaches.

Ok, I’ll admit it, nothing can be “purged of hazardous materials." Witness the Proposition 65 warnings posted everywhere. 

California's Proposition 65, also called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, was enacted in 1986.

It was intended to help Californians make informed decisions about protecting themselves at work and at home from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

So, maybe we should put the term “hazardous materials” in perspective.

Over time, the warnings have become commonplace, it’s even at the entrance to your favorite food market, that its original purpose has been so diluted it is commonly ignored by most people.

The federal version of Prop, 65 required Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for almost everything we use.

For example, corn, potato and rice starches, hair sprays, perfumes and dish soap all have their own MSDS, as do all carcinogens used in industry.

Most fast-food restaurants have the Prop. 65 warnings posted at the entry. It seems they all have foods that contain acrylamide, a trace amount of carcinogen found in cooked foods such as French fries and is a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process.

So, you can see that the range of “hazardous materials” varies from things you eat or use daily in your home to things that may cause serious illnesses or even death after exposure.

So, how about all that flood residue? According to the county Health Department, random samples of sludge were tested for toxins, including heavy metals, gasoline and polychlorinated biphenyls, or hazardous chemicals formerly used in electrical transformers.

Some of these are concerning for both worker and public health.

Only two of the substances were detected; fecal bacteria from untreated sewage, and chemicals found in gasoline and motor oil. 

But these materials are commonly found in storm water runoff and shouldn’t bother average citizens unless they swim in the water or don’t wash the dirt off their skin.

The Health Department warned Goleta Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach, Carpinteria State Beach, El Capitan State Beach, Hope Ranch Beach, Leadbetter Beach, Summerland Beach and Hammond’s Beach were off-limits to swimming due to elevated levels of bacteria in the water.

The public also was denied access to the dump sites.

Warnings such as this one occur at all southern California beaches following almost every rain event, and many people, especially surfers, commonly ignore them.

The difference between this and other storms was the sheer volume of material deposited downstream from the town site of Montecito.

These closures could remain in effect for several weeks as the sun and surf do their job and cleanse the mud of both untreated sewage and petroleum waste.

Workers in the area are required to wear personal protective clothing, including a dust mask, and be decontaminated prior to leaving the site. Homeowners and cleanup contractors should do the same.

This is a common precaution for workers who may be exposed to these types of situations.

This isn’t the first time storm clean-up debris has been deposited on beaches. County environmental planners say that during the very wet winter of 1995, a half million cubic yards of mud from the slough were deposited onto Goleta Beach.

So, even though my critic was technically correct, does this situation pose any danger to the public that’s any greater than eating French fries, drinking coffee, washing your dishes or shopping in the local grocery store?

Not likely, unless you ignore warnings and immerse yourself in the muck or swim in the water.

So, to this fellow I would offer this advice: Try to find a place free of “hazardous materials” so you’ll be safe.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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