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California Mudslide Cleanup Presents New Problems


The task of digging the town of Montecito, Calif., out from under a blanket of mud and debris has officials scrambling for places to put all that mud. As Stephanie O'Neill tells us, Santa Barbara County is now dumping some of the mud onto local beaches even as they warn people to stay away from it.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Marine science professor David Valentine was heading home from his job at UC Santa Barbara when he noticed some unusual activity at Goleta Beach.

DAVID VALENTINE: I bicycle commute in, and I was going past the beach, so that's how I first became aware of what was going on.

O'NEILL: Dump trucks filled with the wet concrete-like slurry from the Montecito debris flow one by one depositing their muddy loads onto the sand. And that got Valentine wondering.

VALENTINE: What really are these materials? What are they composed of, and what are they likely to impact once they make it into the ocean?

O'NEILL: In December, the biggest wildfire in modern California history stripped the mountains. When a downpour hit January 9, soil turned to mud that grabbed everything in its path.

Since then, a chunk of highway 101 has been closed as crews work 24/7, first to clear it and now to repair it. Santa Barbara County says it has permission from four government agencies to do emergency cleanup and because it is an emergency, those state and federal agencies are not requiring the county to test the mud before it gets dumped on the side of the highway, into local landfills and onto the sands of Goleta Beach and Carpinteria State Beach, where people typically surf year-round. The one caveat - that it's all debris-free, according to California Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz.

NOAKI SCHWARTZ: The Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers are removing debris, rock, vegetation and larger materials before depositing the mud.

O'NEILL: And she says county public health is testing the coastal waters. That agency has found high bacteria contamination at the two beaches receiving the mud and at others, prompting this warning from Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso.


VAN DO-REYNOSO: All ocean water in these locations should be considered contaminated, and no recreational activities or swimming should take place.

O'NEILL: And while that sounds dire, Valentine says, high bacteria levels in coastal waters are typical after rains, especially with the first rain of the season.

VALENTINE: We get all sorts of different things pouring into the coastal ocean.

O'NEILL: Stuff like lawn fertilizer and oil drips from cars. Still, Valentine and others say it's certain the Montecito mud contains a lot more than normal first rain runoff. Raw sewage, household chemicals and heavy metals from the recent wildfire are all part of it. But just how much is uncertain. Ben Pitterle is an environmental scientist with the nonprofit Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

BEN PITTERLE: What we can say, I think with some certainty, is that the vast majority of what's being dumped on the beaches is sand and sediment from the mountains.

O'NEILL: A few days ago, Pitterle's organization began a battery of tests, including one that measures biotoxicity.

PITTERLE: We collect a big jar of the mud, and we take it to a special lab that will take a particular species of aquatic mussel and they'll watch those organisms in the material. And then they'll compare how well those organisms persist compared to a clean sample of mud.

O'NEILL: Pitterle's group will be posting all the test results for the public on its website with the hope that if the mud proves to be toxic to marine life, county officials will reconsider their decision to dump it at the beach. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Santa Barbara County, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie O'Neill