JAN 21, 2018 3:21 PM PST

California is dumping toxic mud on its beaches

Mudslides have devastated Santa Barbara County in California after heavy rains in January resulted in tearing off the top layer of the earth from an already eroded post-wildfire landscape. Montecito was hit especially hard, with 120 homes being destroyed, and at least 20 people dead. Three people are still reported as missing. The mudslides have closed part of Highway 101 and now the county is working to manage the emergency cleanup.

“This is really an event of unprecedented magnitude for this location,” said Colin Jones, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation. “We’re clearing out about 9,000 cubic yards of mud every day,” said Jones. “That’s a lot of trucks.” And all that mud has to go somewhere.

A truck dumps mud onto Goleta Beach. Photo: The Santa Barbara Independent

Because of the nature of the situation, four government agencies have given the county permission to dump the mud in some unusual places, including into local landfills and onto Goleta Beach and Carpinteria State Beach. This has got some people questioning the environmental impacts that the cleanup will have.

Tom Fayram, deputy director of public works for Santa Barbara County, explained the difficulty of the situation: “When the mud is 10 feet high on a telephone pole on Danielson Road [in Montecito] and people are still missing, maybe buried in mud ... we have only a few options,” he said.

Nonetheless, environmental groups are concerned that the mud may contain toxic materials, and given that the county has been cleared to dump the waste without testing it, their concern might be justified.

“That mud could contain everything from sewage, to oil and gas from ruptured lines, as well as pesticides, ash, maybe chemicals from inside houses,” said Chris Bryant, a regulatory consultant with Bergeson and Campbell, a Washington D.C.-based law firm focuses on issues related to chemical regulatory compliance.

Yet there is one saving grace. According to California Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz, The Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers are removing debris, rock, vegetation and larger materials before depositing the mud onto the beaches. Personnel from these agencies are also testing coastal waters near the beaches to check for contamination.

The beaches where the mud is being dumped are known to surfers year-round. Carpinteria also backs up to a salt marsh reserve and protects an estuary with many sensitive plant and animal species. People have been advised to abstain from recreational activities in the area.

Sources: NPR, Bloomberg Environment

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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