The recent oil spill off the coast revealed just a part of the more significant pollution crisis that Orange County beaches face.

Editor’s Note: This story series was produced by Chapman University journalism students working with the VOC Collegiate News Service.

The idea for the series was sparked by the fall oil spill off Orange County’s coast. But it also goes further — examining the seen and unseen pollution across the local environment — in drinking water sources, ocean waters, on land and in the air. We hope with this series to give residents balanced and informative stories that people can use to be empowered in the community. If you have questions, comments and story ideas please contact Sonya Quick, digital editor at Voice of OC and Chapman adjunct professor.

Although Southern California’s beaches are the healthiest they’ve been in the past two decades, the oil spill has renewed attention to the fact that ocean pollution is still a threat. 

The Gulf of California stretches over 900 miles, supporting diverse marine life, including many sharks, whales, fish, and squid. 

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, ocean pollution such as beach litter, marine debris, oil spill and sewage spills can have an extremely negative impact on the marine ecosystem and humans living in the coastal areas, such as Orange County.  

Many nonprofit environmental organizations, such as The Surfrider Foundation, have advocated for cleaner coastal areas. Surfrider is a grassroots, nonprofit environmental group founded in Malibu to protect oceans and beaches.

Chad Nelsen, CEO of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, has been an outspoken advocate of preserving oceans and beaches, focusing on water quality and marine and coastal ecosystems sustainability. 

After the Oct. 2 oil spill, Nelsen tweeted, “End government subsidies for oil and gas drilling, prohibit any new offshore drilling, decommission the existing rigs. That’s what we need to do in California.” 

Causes of Pollution

No. 1 Beach Litter

Recreational activities such as boating, swimming, surfing, sunbathing and picnicking soil the shoreline. 

Pollution is often blamed on the fishing industry, but according to the California Coastal Commission, only 20% of trash found in the ocean can be traced back to ocean-based sources such as commercial fishing vessels, cargo ships (disposal of containers and waste), or cruise ships.

The other 80% comes from other sources such as beach litter, industrial debris and garbage management. 

According to Science Direct, there is growing research about plastic debris being too small to be captured by current filters, resulting in it being discharged by water treatment systems.  

Types of Microplastic Pollution:

  • Microbeads
  • Foamed Plastic Particles 
  • Fragments 
  • Fibers
  • Nurdles

No. 2 Oil Spill

In early October a pipeline owned by Amplify Energy spilled an estimated 25,000 gallons of oil into the ocean and onto the beaches of Orange County. 

But the Huntington Beach Oil Spill is not Orange County’s first oil spill. 

And not even the biggest one.

On Feb. 7, 1990, an oil tanker, the American Trader, ran over its anchor, puncturing a hole in its hull, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Huntington Beach, according to the  California Department of Fish and Wildlife

According to the department, oil in the water can be deadly for animals, like damaging  feathers on birds – potentially keeping them from flying or floating.

Oil can also damage the seafood industry. 

“Oil may cause reproductive problems and genetic abnormalities in fish. Contaminants may enter the food chain and result in seafood that is unfit for people to eat,” states the California Coastal Commission

No. 3 Marine Debris

Marine debris is “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The administration also provided an estimation that Orange County residents could potentially save millions of dollars by reducing marine debris.

  • If marine debris is reduced by 25%, $32 million would be saved.
  • If marine debris is reduced by 50%, $67 million would be saved.
  • If marine debris is reduced by 75%, $106 million would be saved.
  • If marine debris is reduced by 100%, $148 million would be saved.

“Reducing or eliminating marine debris from our beaches is critical, because littered shorelines are costing people more than we anticipated. We can use these kinds of data to prioritize beaches for debris prevention and removal activities,”said Nancy Wallace, Marine Debris Program director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

No. 4 Sewage Spills

When sewage from a waste treatment cycle overflows, leaks, or spills into a body of water, onto land, or into a building, this is referred to as a sewage spill. 

According to the OC Health Care Agency’s 2019-20 Biennial Ocean, Harbor & Bay Water Quality Report, 88 sewage spills were reported in Orange County in 2020. As the report states: “The number of spills in both 2019 and 2020 were well below the average of 191 spills per year.”

In 2021, there were 18 sewage spills in Orange County, which sent roughly 10,000 gallons of sewage into bodies of water, according to the Heal the Bay Beach Report Card. One of these spills ended up closing beaches temporarily in Huntington Harbor.

Early Years of Ocean Pollution Control

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first significant piece of legislation in the United States to address water pollution. When amended in 1972, the law became commonly known as the Clean Water Act

When Congress debated the 1972 Act, they recognized that changes would be necessary once the law went into effect. In 1977, The Federal Clean Water Act was amended once again, and the Environmental Protection Agency was strengthened by the legislation enacted.

The environmental agency gained authority to create a basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into US waters. It also controlled the pumping of sewage into waters. 

The Orange County Marine Protected Area Council protects areas reaching from Crystal Cove to Dana Point. Their mission is to “collaborate at a regional level to preserve and protect Orange County’s marine protected areas through ongoing improvements in research, monitoring, education, outreach, and enforcement.”

Crystal Cove State Park on March 20, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

California’s marine protected areas network was redesigned in 1999 for California’s Marine Life Protection act.

The marine protection act also aims to improve recreational, educational and research opportunities marine ecosystems are subject to minimal human disturbance. 

The United Nations environment program launched the Clean Sees campaign that aims to eliminate primary sources of marine litter by the year 2022. It was established in 2017, aiming to rally governments, companies, and individuals to fight against marine litter and pollution.

Since then, the campaign has been successful with over 63 countries joining, making it “the biggest, most powerful global coalition devoted to ending marine plastic pollution”

What’s Next?

In 2021, 42 of more than 500 monitored beaches in California were on Heal the Bay’s prestigious Honor Roll. Orange County had the most beaches on the Honor Roll at 10, which is more than any other county.

However, this is still half of what it was in 2020

Poche Beach at the creek outlet in Orange County returned to the Beach Bummer list at No. 2 two after a brief hiatus (it was on the list in 2018, 2013, 2012, 2011). 

On April 7, 2015, the California State Water Quality Control Board created a unique statewide policy to prevent trash from reaching California’s waters. This 10-year timeline was implemented with one of two paths to compliance, both of which aimed to get to a “no trash in our waters” outcome. 

The Orange County Coastkeeper has strongly pushed for involvement in managing the Environmental Clean-up Fund of Measure M. The measure has resulted in every Orange County city working to install storm drain screens and inserts to catch trash.

“The State Water Board’s Trash Policy is essential to protect California’s tourism- and recreation-based economy and could become a national model for keeping trash out of waters,” said Sara Aminzadeh, former executive director for California Coastkeeper Alliance.

Story written by Tatiana Douaihy. Edited by Ava McLean.

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