By Olin Ericksen
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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