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Dredge Over Troubled Waters

[whitespace] Moss Landing dredge
George Sakkestad

Muck Raking: Harbor officials and local scientists argue the risk of dumping Moss Landing dredge into Monterey Canyon doesn't warrant the cost of trucking it to a landfill.

Toxins found in Moss Landing dredge have triggered battles between the feds and Moss Landing Harbor--backed by scientists-- over the environmental risk of dumping contaminated sediments into the Monterey Canyon

By Mary Spicuzza

WITH AN EFFORTLESS thrust of its tail, the sleek catshark glides past a brilliant orange-and-white spotted ratfish. Hovering just above the floor of its saltwater home, the wide-eyed ratfish is too busy scanning the sandy sediment for food to acknowledge the circling shark. Nearby, pastel pink king crabs, covered in sharp spines, crawl over fossilized sea sponges, while a soft mushroom coral stretches dozens of otherworldly tentacles to feed on its tiny prey. A fluorescent purple pom-pom anemone rolls along the sea floor, looking like the lost city of Atlantis' glowing answer to a desert tumbleweed.

With more than 40 other species, these creatures make up the Monterey Bay Aquarium's new exhibit, "Mysteries of the Deep: The First Major Exhibit From Earth's Last Frontier." The show, which opened at the aquarium this month, offers a glimpse of the vast ecosystem thriving in the deep seas of Monterey Canyon, the huge submarine canyon that stretches through the bay for more than 50 miles and drops to depths of 10,000 feet. The exhibit reveals a canyon rich with glowing colors and diverse life--a world that only a century ago scientists believed was barren and lifeless.

Twenty minutes north of the aquarium, and just a few hundred meters from the mouth of the majestic canyon, Moss Landing Harbor provides a very different look at life within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Yet the two are inextricably linked. In 1947, the Army Corps of Engineers cut the harbor into the coastline near the mouth of the Salinas River and neighboring sloughs. Ever since, the corps and the harbor district have dredged the muddy sediment flowing from the watershed--which would have buried the port long ago--and dumped it into the canyon.

In the shadow of PG&E's massive power plant, a cheerful roadside sign greets Highway 1 travelers: "Welcome to Moss Landing: Heart of the Monterey Bay." But the quiet coastal town, 8 miles south of Watsonville, is also the heart of a battle over dredging being waged between harbor officials backed by local scientists and various government agencies backed by environmental groups.

Harbormaster Jim Stilwell says that there is no problem with disposing of sediments dredged from the harbor in the canyon. Holding a termite-infested chunk of wood that was once the bottom of a boat buried in harbor mud, Stilwell argues the trouble is federal sediment contamination regulations.

"The animals are healthy. There're no problems. So why is someone trying to create a problem ... or solve a problem that doesn't exist?" Stilwell asks incredulously. Local scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Moss Landing Marine Laboratory agree, saying there is no proof that dumping the dredge into the canyon is putting wildlife, the food chain or people at risk.

But the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Fish and Game and environmentalists say that high levels of toxins, and chemicals like DDT, which can bioaccumulate in the food chain, make some of the dredge a potential threat to the environment and human health and unsuitable for ocean dumping. They insist that every harbor, even small ones next to giant canyons and bustling with scientific research, must obey national standards governing the disposal of toxic sediments.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of an emergency dredging that sent ripples throughout the sanctuary community, which was busily preparing to greet President Clinton for last summer's Year of the Ocean festivities. After months of meetings, those involved have yet to agree on the problems--much less settle on a solution.

In a very different exhibition of the mysteries of the deep, science, politics, environmentalism, regulation, cost, ideology and toxic runoff swirl in the muddy waters of Moss Landing. The debate over this tiny harbor--which was declared a high-priority toxic hot spot by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board in January--grows with every drop of rain.

Dock of the Bay

RAYS OF SUNLIGHT break the late morning haze, the moist harbor air heavy with the smell of fish. Jerry Sawyer shuffles along Moss Landing's wood-planked pier where he docks his family's boat, a fishing pole in one hand and five-gallon plastic bucket in the other.

The U.S. government planned Moss Landing as a port for shipping military commodities. According to Stilwell, the Navy hoped to use Monterey Canyon as a submarine launch. But fishermen like Sawyer quickly flocked to the area, whose waters boast some of the richest marine life along the California coast. The 600-boat dock is now home to more than 300 commercial fishing vessels, which haul in loads of sardines, squid, salmon, crab and rockfish. Although a relatively small port, it pulls in twice as much fish as other harbors on the central coast, Stilwell says.

Moss Landing Harbor isn't unique in its dredging woes. Every human-made harbor needs to dredge its channels and berths, as sediments from the watershed wash in and settle on the ocean floor. Moss Landing's dredging operation is relatively small. Only about 200,000 cubic yards of waste, a 10th of the sediment dug out of San Francisco Bay during its maintenance dredging, are sucked from Moss Landing each year.

Last March tensions flared when El Niño storms ripped at Salinas Valley farmers' fields and filled the harbor with mud laden with currently used pesticides as well as long-banned chemicals like DDT and toxaphene.

"Folks were saying that Moss Landing was the safest harbor in California," Monterey Bay Aquarium's senior marine biologist Steve Webster jokes. "The mud was so bad, the boats couldn't sink."

The harbor had already received permission to do some emergency dredging, but later wrote the Army Corps of Engineers for permission to dredge MBARI's research vessel, the Western Flyer, out of the muck. While the corps routinely provides dredging permits to local harbors, agency guidelines define an emergency dredging as a response to "clear and imminent danger" to human life or economic catastrophe. And according to the Clean Water Act, material discharged into the ocean "must be free of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts."

The corps approved the emergency dredging and ocean disposal of mud swallowing the Western Flyer, despite a history of toxic sediments in the northern harbor where the boat docks. Claiming it was an emergency, the corps didn't consult with the EPA or the staff of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary--despite guidelines that conservation agencies should be involved in situations where there may be environmental risk. Normally all of the groups coordinate efforts to deal with contaminated sediments before dredge, not after the fact.

Pollutants present in the harbor, according to the Toxic Hot Spot report, include chemicals like toxaphene, DDT and its breakdown products, PCBs, endosulphan, and tributyltin (TBT). Sediments failed toxicity tests before DDT bioaccumulation tests were even conducted. Ecologist Bob Risebrough, who was instrumental in banning DDT in 1972, says that levels in the Moss Landing area are not high enough to warrant concern. But Brian Ross, a coordinator for the EPA's dredging and sediment management team, says Moss Landing has had ongoing problems with DDT. He compares the amount of the chemical found in Moss Landing to the maximum level permitted in San Francisco Bay after the cleanup of the Superfund site in Richmond, where DDT was processed.

During ensuing rounds of dredge debate, harbor officials and Moss Landing scientists have argued that the relatively small amount of dredge materials--and, they say, low amounts of toxics--mean there's no evidence that canyon dumping harms the environment. Moss Landing Marine Laboratories' ecologist John Oliver adds that the EPA's one-size-fits-all regulations just don't work for Moss Landing, which sits at the mouth of a canyon--thus facilitating ocean disposal like no other harbor--and hosts scientists monitoring its effects.

While the EPA agrees that Moss Landing boasts a unique environment, the agency argues that it doesn't exempt any harbor from following federal regulations--especially one in the heart of the country's largest sanctuary.

Jim Stilwell
George Sakkestad

Sea No Evil: Harbormaster Jim Stilwell believes that government bureaucracy, not toxic contamination, triggered Moss Landing's dredging woes.

Down and Dirty

WHILE LAST YEAR'S emergency dredging brought the issue to the surface, trouble has been building since the bay was named a national marine sanctuary in 1992.

Moss Landing sediment tests conducted by the Corps of Engineers before a 1993 channel dredging turned up elevated levels of toxins. Because sediment contamination tests were revamped in 1991, it's difficult to determine if levels of chemicals in the harbor have increased or whether regulators are simply better at finding them.

Ross says that every Moss Landing contamination test since 1993 has failed for portions of the harbor dredge--with one exception. That test was conducted in March 1998 by Harding Lawson Associates, private consultants hired by the harbor.

The consultants conducted the tests against the advice of the EPA and without following established EPA-accepted protocol after sediments had already been found to be too toxic for aquatic disposal.

"We don't let people keep testing until they get the answers they want," Ross says. "The Harding Associates tested over and over again until it passed. They took a bigger space and diluted it. That's just not how it's done."

Ross adds that the EPA isn't opposed to all canyon dumping. The site has a grandfather clause which allows the harbor to continue dumping in the canyon head, known as SF-12. And when the sanctuary was established, it was designed to allow commercial interests to continue operating within its boundaries. But canyon-dumped dredge must still pass nationally accepted contamination tests, monitored by the EPA.

Moss Landing's 200,000 cubic yards of dredge are only a tiny portion of the 300 million cubic yards of sediment dug out of the nation's waterways every year. Mixed up in the 60 million tons of ocean-dumped sediment are 37 million pounds of contaminants, according to a 1998 EPA study. Soon after the study's completion, the EPA released a new Inland Testing Manual with revamped sediment contamination tests--new requirements that the harbor is now exempt from due to the grandfather clause.

Sitting in his office steps away from the Moss Landing piers, harbormaster Stilwell says he is aware of the EPA's requirements.

"The EPA has this very simplistic catch phrase they like to use. 'Dilution is no solution to pollution.' They like to throw that in your face and go like this with it," Stilwell says, making a pie-in-the-face motion.

Stilwell argues that rigorous standards imposed by the EPA mean huge costs for his little harbor. The alternative to dumping in the canyon is to dry the dredge after it has been sucked from the bottom of the harbor, then load it on trucks and haul it to the Marina landfill near Monterey. Upland disposal, he estimates, would cost his harbor 10 times as much as ocean dumping.

Just after Stilwell guides me back to his office, which is dotted with model ships and drawings of boats, he asks if I've spoken with MBARI's Tom Tengdin. When I explain that we'd been playing phone tag, Stilwell pushes a button on his phone and Tengdin answers.

"Tom, I've got that reporter here to talk about dredging," he says. "Do you want to come over?"

Tengdin, MBARI's Ocean Observatory supervisor, was president of the harbor district's board for four years. According to Tengdin and Stilwell, last year's dredging became an emergency partly due to El Niño, but mainly because of bureaucratic roadblocks.

"What led to the emergency dredging last year were arbitrary environmental constraints placed on normal, routine maintenance dredging by the EPA and the Sanctuary," Stilwell says. "Many of the decisions made by the EPA are arbitrary and capricious."

Both Tengdin and Stilwell argue that the regulatory agencies have been slow to respond, inflexible and unscientific. Tengdin says they don't take into account the unique canyon disposal and the amount of toxins already flowing in from the rivers.

"There's a huge amount of this stuff coming in through the rivers. The dredge materials only make up about 1 percent," Tengdin says. "I've tried to tell them this over and over. But they just hold their hands over their ears and sing."

River's Dredge

FROM OUTSIDE the locked visitor center of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, the reflection of the harbor and power plant in the distance shadows a painting of the quiet slough. The mural shows dozens of critters living under the water's surface. Its title reads, "A Web of Life Thrives in the Underwater World."

It's a web that Mark Silberstein, director of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, mentions frequently as his car winds along the roads of the reserve. The busy Silberstein rattles off a slew of projects that his group has launched to address the source of pollutants in the watershed and prevent future runoff and contamination. The foundation works with Elkhorn Slough as well as waterways like Moro Cojo Slough, the Old Salinas and Salinas rivers, Tembladero Slough and Blanco Drain.

For more than a decade, folks like Silberstein have advocated a shift from crisis cleanup programs to watershed management promoting long-term solutions.

Silberstein pulls off the road near the Azevedo Ranch, where he and two UC-Santa Cruz students are working with local farmers to experiment with farmland preservation.

As we hike out into the fields next to the slough, different colored flags mark different native bunch grasses and crops being tested for their anti-erosion characteristics.

"One of the things that's clear from this dredging saga ... it demonstrates how all of these elements are linked," Silberstein says. "The only way this is going to work is to tackle [contamination] at the source ... in a cooperative way."

The Elkhorn Slough Foundation, founded 16 years ago, has been working with farmers for nearly five years to explore new methods of preventing toxic runoff from reaching Moss Landing Harbor. The foundation currently operates two pilot programs with farmers, including an 800-acre plot it manages for The Nature Conservancy.

The EPA is also involved in efforts to control contamination in Salinas Valley, through working directly with farmers as well as providing grants for watershed management and wetlands restoration programs.

Projects don't guarantee an end to harbor dredging, but Silberstein's aim is to cut back on the amount and toxicity of sediment that is ultimately dredged from the harbor bottom--and help solve dredging controversies before they start.

He shrugs, "As soon as we start pointing fingers, we've lost. You end up spending money on lawyer's fees instead of working together to find solutions."

An optimistic Silberstein sees the entire Moss Landing ecosystem as a perfect laboratory for creating a formula for successful watershed management.

"This is a microcosm of water management issues faced throughout the country," Silberstein says. "There's every use imaginable: residential, transportation, fishing port, wildlife habitat and research. In a way, the dredge dilemma is a beautiful case of the need to integrate a watershed management approach."

Mark Silberstein
George Sakkestad

Watershed Down: Mark Silberstein, director of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, leads efforts to tackle contamination pouring into Moss Landing Harbor at the source.

Political Science

A YELLOWING CARTOON taped to the door of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories' Benthic Lab, home base of marine ecologist John Oliver, hints at his frustrations over the dredge debate. It shows a father and child looking on in dismay at the ducks who've taken over their backyard pool. Next to them a suit-and-tied bureaucrat explains, "Get rid of them? On the contrary ... Because the geese have begun to nest here, your pool has been declared a protected wetland, requiring that no human activity take place within 150 feet."

Oliver says that EPA tests and regulations have lost touch with the science that spawned them.

With a click of his computer's mouse, a beautiful map of the Monterey Canyon unfolds over his mermaid screen saver.

"See, this is the key to doing an environmental risk assessment for dredging," Oliver says proudly. He grins like a little boy as he explains his work with geologist Gary Greene. Together they are mapping the depths of the mysterious canyon, which they have studied for 30 years.

He points to the unpublished work-in-progress, which appears much like a mountain range with its images in reverse. Dark lines indicate deep crevices, and light planes are actually low plateaus.

"They've finally agreed to let us go ahead and do a risk-assessment based on the canyon. We've been arguing for this for years," Oliver says. "Why wasn't this the first thing that was done? The EPA has wasted all this time talking about killing canaries."

On the maps, which until recently were only in the minds of scientists like Oliver and Greene, the fiery ecologist takes me on a tour of canyon-dumped dredge. First, he hypothesizes, the dredge materials settle in the sediments at the canyon head. Then the rough waters of the first winter storm trigger an annual flushing event, thrusting diluted dredge materials into the depths of the ocean, which Oliver describes as "never-never land."

Unlike the diversity of life found in the depths of the canyon, Oliver says, the benthic--or mud-dwelling--community living in the head are already killed periodically by natural environmental stress.

"The canyon head benthic community is dominated by species that rapidly colonize new sea floor, live for less than a year, and regularly tolerate significant environmental stresses," Oliver writes in a 1977 risk assessment study. "The community has a low biodiversity and no habitats of special concern are known or expected."

He doesn't believe toxins diluted in the canyon and sent into the deep seas would bioaccumulate in the food chain or cause harm to fish and the humans eating them.

In January the Monterey Bay Aquarium hosted a conference on dredging, and participants agreed to go ahead with a risk assessment plan, which will study the likelihood of adverse ecological effects of dredge dumping in the canyon.

Oliver hopes the risk assessment will be a virtual moment of truth--where lay people will better come to understand the science of the canyon. But regulators and environmentalists are doubtful that flushing toxics into the sanctuary is the solution.

"The EPA isn't going to live with you putting whatever you want in the harbor and let it swirl around," says Linda Sheehan, pollution programs manager for the Center for Marine Conservation.

Despite MBARI and Moss Landing researchers' firm belief that there is no significant risk in canyon disposal, other scientists are less convinced.

Fish and Game environmental specialist Deborah Johnston says, "We only have anecdotal evidence that the sediments are being flushed out the canyon. We don't have that scientific data. Until I see more studies, I can't say it's all being sent out into the canyon. That's just scientific integrity."

Vicki Nichols, executive director of Save Our Shores, agrees that taking a precautionary approach is best for all marine situations--especially for a national sanctuary. She praises scientific experimentation, but argues against tests that pose a threat to the environment.

"The Clean Water Act governs dumping, and it says that if there is any way to reduce adding contaminants into the ocean, you should do so," Nichols says. "Scientists often apply high scientific standards of proof to situations where there need to be decisions based on precautionary principles. What are we going to do if we realize 30 to 40 years from now that this was harmful? Say, 'Aw shucks'?"

Infinitely Ignorant

ONE THING EVERYONE involved can agree on is that the long-term solution to contaminated sediments is in addressing the source. In the meantime, short-term solutions hinge on the willingness of key players in the sanctuary to agree on the problems--or at least communicate enough to come up with a risk assessment process that addresses everyone's concerns.

Congressman Sam Farr (D-Monterey) has gotten involved to facilitate communication and make sure that the harbor doesn't get slammed with excessive fees.

"We've been concerned. ... A solution that's going to bankrupt the harbor isn't a solution," says Donna Blitzer, Farr's district director.

As commercial, environmental, political, scientific research and agricultural interests struggle to find a balance, it becomes clear that Silberstein is right--all things are connected, whether we like it or not.

The "Mysteries of the Deep" exhibit, a colorful reminder of how little we knew about the ocean's depths a century ago, hints that another 100 years may provide insight into the ongoing dredge debate.

Until then, Save Our Shores' Nichols says that as long as there is a risk of damage to the sanctuary, dumping toxins into the sanctuary shouldn't be an option.

When asked about waiting to dump until there's an absolute guarantee that contaminated dredge material isn't harming the marine environment, Oliver is outraged.

"That represents a complete misunderstanding of how science works and how we work as human beings," Oliver says. Walking in the rain as he surveys the buoys floating above the canyon head, he says people have little absolute proof of anything.

Tromping through the mud lining the harbor, Oliver stops to draw a line in the wet sand with his white sneaker.

"There's one question. You ask a question, and you get 10 more questions out of that one. By the time you're done, you've got thousands and thousands of questions," he yells over the crashing harbor waves as he carves dozens of lines into the caked sand. "And a handful of pseudo-answers. It's always a weight of the evidence. We are always infinitely ignorant."

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From the March 31-April 7, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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