The Arcata City Council voted at its Wednesday meeting to offer to work collaboratively with the Humboldt Waste Management Authority to create an environmental impact report for a ban of single-use plastic bags.

To implement such a ban, the city would need to prepare the report, unless a decision in the currently pending California Supreme Court case Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. Manhattan Beach determines otherwise, said City Attorney Nancy Diamond. Other communities are moving forward with the bans. Los Angeles County passed its ban on plastic bags and implemented a fee on paper bags Tuesday. It will go into effect in about a month.

Completing an environmental impact report would also identify the real impacts paper and plastic bags have and what, if any, alternatives could be used instead of a ban. Councilman Michael Winkler requested that if they were going to ban single-use plastic bags received at grocery and retail stores during check-out that they also move to ban single-use produce bags.

Many council members and city staff had been waiting to see what happened with Assembly Bill 1998 that would have banned plastic bags statewide, but it was not approved. Jim Test of Humboldt Waste Management Authority said it will likely be even harder for the plastics industry, which lobbied against the bill, to deal with different ordinances for every municipality since the state ban failed.

”It will be a lot of fun tweaking the plastic industry's  nose,” Test said.

Councilman Shane Brinton and others were interested in working at the county level to promote the action to happen in a broader area than just Arcata, even if the end product might not be as stringent as one based solely in the city. He put in his motion that if the county agency did not express interest in working with Arcata on the ban by the end of February, the council would move forward with it on its own.


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Arcata's acclaimed wastewater treatment marshes may be at a crossroads -- and city officials say possibly a dead end -- as the city and water quality regulators struggle over how the wetlands should be managed in the future.

The city is worried that an apparent shift in how the marshes are viewed by regulators could force it to spend millions to develop a new treatment system and potentially imperil the marshes that have become a haven for thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife, as well as the general public. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, however, isn't convinced that the way the wastewater is treated now is best for the marshes and their ecology.

Essentially, water board staff believe that the marshes, into which treated wastewater flows before eventually being discharged into Humboldt Bay, are subject to federal Clean Water Act regulations. They are “waters of the United States,” according to the regulators.

That would mean that the wastewater -- which is first treated in a series of ponds and small marshes -- must meet certain limits for suspended solids and other criteria before being sent into the Allen, Gearheart and Hauser marshes. That could require the city to more thoroughly treat the wastewater first, instead of allowing the marshes to do some of the work they were designed to do, cleaning the water before it goes into the bay.

But Arcata doesn't believe that the marshes have ever been considered “waters of the United States,” defined by the Clean Water Act as waters used for commerce, wetlands, lakes, streams or the territorial sea. That's because the city built the marshes on former industrial land, much of which was even paved, and they were built to serve the purpose of treating wastewater before it's discharged into the bay they border.

The water board's stance on the issue has clearly touched nerves at the city. Mayor Alex Stillman said in an e-mail that the treatment system is working exactly how it was envisioned when it was created in the 1970s and that its success has been replicated worldwide. She asked why the city should have to spend thousands of dollars to “re-educate” water board staff.

Board Executive Officer Catherine Kuhlman said that the distinction shouldn't matter much -- it's where the state and the city want to spend time and money, and what they want to accomplish on the ground. Kuhlman said it's an open question whether the marshes were built to be solely a part of the wastewater system, and that either way, they need to be protected from pollutants that flow into them.

Water Board Senior Resource Engineer John Short, in an Oct. 28 letter to the city, wrote that the board provided money for the initial pilot study that proved the feasibility of the marsh project, provided grant funds for construction and waived a discharge requirement to allow treated wastewater to be released into the bay. If the city eliminates treated wastewater from the marshes, Short wrote, that waiver would be in question.

One marsh pioneer, environmental engineer Robert Gearheart, said that board staff haven't made it clear what standards the city may have to meet in the new permit. That makes if difficult to know whether the city will be able to switch to a UV treatment system and eliminate the use of chlorine.

”It sets up a whole different set of conditions,” Gearheart said.

Ultimately, Gearheart said, it may come down to a political decision on how to regulate the treatment system -- and until then, the future of the marshes may be up in the air.


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Oct. 2010

No public eating guidelines will be issued for fish at Ruth Lake, and no advisory will be posted to warn fishermen about high mercury levels in largemouth bass, despite a recent study that found high levels in the popular fish. 

It’s not that contamination levels are disputed, or that the mercury will disappear from the environment any time soon. Rather the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) can’t burden the public—at least until they have good news to share.

“Fish are an important part of a healthy diet, and provide vital nutrients such as Omega 3s. We need data from a variety of species so that we can not only warn about species that are high in mercury, but also recommend the species that are safest to eat,” said Colleen Flannery, of OEHHA’s Legislative and External Affairs. 

Largemouth bass recently sampled from Ruth Lake averaged mercury levels of .71 parts-per-million (ppm). Eleven fish were sampled, ranging from .44 to 1.08 ppm. The results were published in June as part of a statewide survey of lakes.

“The mercury levels in Ruth Lake bass are well above the threshold at which OEHHA advises no consumption for sensitive populations,” said principal investigator Jay Davis, of the San Francisco Estuary Institute. The study was contracted by the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP)—a program of the California State Water Board.


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Enacting one of the nation's most aggressive environmental measures, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to ban plastic grocery bags in unincorporated areas of the county.

The vote was 3-1, supported by Supervisors Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Zev Yaroslavsky, and opposed by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. Supervisor Don Knabe was absent.

The ban, which will cover nearly 1.1 million residents countywide, is to the point: “No store shall provide to any customer a plastic carryout bag.” An exception would be made for plastic bags that are used to hold fruit, vegetables or raw meat in order to prevent contamination with other grocery items.

If grocers choose to offer paper bags, they must sell them for 10 cents each, according to the ordinance. The revenue will be retained by the stores to purchase the paper bags and educate customers about the law.

“Plastic bags are a pollutant. They pollute the urban landscape. They are what we call in our county urban tumbleweed,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

Mark Gold, president of the Santa Monica environmental group Heal the Bay, said previous county efforts to promote recycling of plastic bags at grocery stores was a failure.

“You cannot recycle your way out of the plastic bag problem,” Gold said. “The cost of convenience can no longer be at the expense of the environment.”

The measure is a significant win for environmental groups, which suffered a major defeat in Sacramento at the end of August with the failure of the state Senate to pass a sweeping plastic bag ban that won the support of the state Assembly and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger amid heavy and costly lobbying by plastic bag manufacturers. But the ban could cause confusion. The action by the Board of Supervisors only covers the unincorporated areas of L.A. County, covering some neighborhoods like Altadena, Valencia and Rowland Heights, but doesn't cover 88 cities in L.A. County. City councils could adopt a similar ordinance.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich  raised the prospect that small mom-and-pop shops could suffer financially because they won’t be able to buy paper and reusable bags in great volume, and could force low-income people to buy bags to pick up pet waste or carry their lunch.

“At a time of economic uncertainty, with a large number of businesses leaving our state and community this would not be an appropriate time ... to impose this additional regulation,” Antonovich said.

Opponents of the ban told the supervisors that a legal challenge to the ban is still a possibility.

With the Tuesday vote, L.A. County’s measure is more stringent than similar bans adopted elsewhere in California, Gold said.  

San Francisco’s ban, which passed three years ago, is less restrictive because it still permits grocers to offer bioplastic bags made from corn starch, which are imperfect because they also do not degrade in the ocean, Gold said. Bans in San Francisco and Malibu also do not add a surcharge on paper bags, Gold said, which does not give consumers an incentive to switch to reusable cloth bags.

Washington, D.C., decided to tackle the issue not with a ban on any kind of bag, but a 5-cent surcharge per any item of disposable bag.

Gold, however, said an outright ban will be more effective on reducing the 6 billion plastic bags that are used in L.A. County every year, which according to the county, account for 25% of the litter picked up here.

Government figures show that just 5% of plastic bags are recycled.

Last week, the American Chemistry Council, one of the chief opponents of the ban,  warned L.A. County leaders that the proposed ordinance and fee on paper bags fall under the voting requirements of Proposition 26. The initiative, which passed this month, reclassifies most regulatory fees on industry as "taxes" requiring a two-thirds vote in government bodies or in public referendums, rather than a simple majority.

County Counsel Andrea Ordin said Tuesday that the 10-cent surcharge on paper bags is not a fee covered by Prop. 26 because the revenue is being kept by the grocers and not directed to a government agency.


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Urban streams commonly have low abundances and poor diversity of many freshwater insects that fish and other aquatic animals eat. Even after people have restored these stream habitats, the waterways often remain biologically impoverished, with diminished numbers of fish. New research reported Nov. 8 at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) in Portland, Oregon, has identified a probable culprit: pollutants in stormwater runoff that flushes through the streams.

Scientists have demonstrated that increasing urbanization leads to declining stream health, but they have struggled to pin down the causes. Urban stormwater runoff is a leading suspect. The force of runoff water rushing into these streams can cause physical damage to the streams' habitats. In addition, stormwater carries pollutants from numerous sources including vehicle exhaust, industrial plants, homes, and construction sites.

Kate Macneale and her colleagues at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center decided to focus on water quality's effects on the biological habitat of urban streams. They ran experiments to observe how runoff affected 35 types of insects that generally indicate good stream health and serve as valuable prey for juvenile salmon.

Alongside a creek in the Seattle area, the researchers set up a series of experimental channels, similar to rain gutters. They collected rocks that had been colonized by the insects from a relatively pristine watershed nearby and added them to the channels. Some channels received creek water that the scientists had filtered to remove most of its contaminants; the remaining channels carried unfiltered water. Analysis of the unfiltered creek water showed that it contained hydrocarbons, metals, and other pollutants.

The researchers placed fine-mesh nets at the channel ends to capture insects drifting downstream—a behavior that signals avoidance of some stressor. After a three-week period, they counted the numbers and type of insects that had drifted into the nets and those that had remained in the channels.

The first series of experiments, conducted during the autumn of 2007, showed no significant differences in insect survival between the filtered and unfiltered water, possibly because weak fall storms produced little runoff. However, in a second set of experiments during spring 2009, the researchers found that the overall abundance of insects remaining in the channels exposed to unfiltered water declined by about 26%. They also discovered that the species diversity in those channels had changed.

"Even relatively brief exposures to urban runoff can alter the diversity and abundance of stream communities," Macneale says. "We need to consider water quality in restoring fish habitat."


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