Environment & Science

Long Beach beaches still closed due to sewage spill

File: View of the ocean near the Port of Long Beach.
File: View of the ocean near the Port of Long Beach.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Water affected by a sewage spill in Long Beach is clearing, but not enough for officials to reopen the coast to beachgoers just yet.

"We've been doing testing, and the testing still indicates that we still have some spots that haven't cleared," Long Beach Health Department’s Nelson Kerr told KPCC. "We're definitely trending down, the water is definitely clearing, getting better and better. Just maybe a little slower than we'd expect it."

A sample taken on Sunday came back with a negative result Monday, Long Beach Department of Health officials said. Still, two negatives are needed before beaches can reopen.

A spokesman said the department should get result of the second test early Tuesday, meaning the earliest beaches could reopen is late Tuesday morning.

In the meantime, beaches from 5th Place to 72nd Place will continue to be closed, Kerr said. 

"We're definitely moving in the right direction, and we will continue to monitor every day, and we will open the beaches as soon as it is safe," Kerr said. "We're hopeful, but we don't want to speculate. We don't want to give an exact date, because it is according to what the tests show."

Rain forecasted for Monday night has the potential to add more runoff into the water, Kerr added.

The good news? It doesn't appear that the hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage dumped into the waters will affect the area in the long term.

Phyllis Grifman, Associate director of USC's Sea Grant program said the continued closure was a matter of protecting public health and didn't necessarily signal the need for a larger cleanup. 

“It’s really not very clear that a sewage spill this size will have longer-term impacts," Grifman said. "In the short term, there can be acute toxicity to animals. In the long term, those are probably sub-lethal. The reasons for the beach closures don’t have to do so much with marine life as with the health hazards to people.” 

So what happens when there's a spill?

“The sewage content is usually primarily freshwater. The first thing that would happen as it gets emptied into the ocean is that freshwater is lighter than salt water, so the layer would separate," Grifman said.

The spill's components likely include nitrogens and phosphates from human waste, she added.

"So in that sense, they serve as nutrients. And that means that different kinds of coastal critters and the plankton can ingest those nutrients. And sometimes that leads to cascading events that has to do with low oxygen," Grifman said.

Grifman acknowledged that similar spills happen regularly.

“I hate to say normal. I don’t want to say normal, but these kinds of spills happen periodically when you have 10 million people living right next to the ocean. But it doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary, sad to say," she said.

Grifman added that last week's spill wasn't among the worst Long Beach has seen.

"It will probably dissipate fairly quickly," she said. "However, we don’t want any of these to happen, and this is a good wake-up call for all the managers of those kinds of facilities on our coast to pay careful attention to their maintenance.”

This story has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Phyllis Grifman. We regret the error.