Damian Dovarganes  /  AP file
Without a proper sewer system, Malibu, Calif., uses septic tanks and storm drainage pipes like this one.
updated 10/5/2006 10:19:11 AM ET 2006-10-05T14:19:11

Just whose waste is fouling the most star-studded stretch of the Southern California coast?

Los Angeles County officials intend to find out, and if the evidence leads back to the toilets of some of Hollywood’s rich and famous, the sewage could really hit the fan.

“This is going to get messy,” predicts Mark Pestrella, the public works official assigned to the project.

Environmentalists and health officials suspect Malibu homeowners’ leaky septic tanks are allowing what gets flushed down the toilet to flow down the hills and into the Pacific Ocean. To identify the offenders, authorities intend to use DNA testing and, if necessary, get court warrants to inspect septic tanks. And that includes tanks buried in the backyards of Hollywood celebrities.

Malibu, whose spectacular seaside cliffs, canyons and beaches have attracted numerous environmentally minded celebrities over the years, including Sting and Tom Hanks, was incorporated in 1991 specifically to stop construction of a sewer line. There are an estimated 2,400 septic tanks in this city of multimillion-dollar homes strung along 25 miles of coast.

Malibu residents fiercely guard their privacy and their right to use septic tanks, and many deny their septic systems are the source of dangerous ocean bacteria levels that rise sharply after heavy rains.

DNA sleuthing
Under pressure from Southern California regulators, investigators over the next few months will begin testing sea water. If DNA shows the waste is human and not from, say, raccoons or coyote, they will follow the trail up creeks that traverse neighborhoods in Malibu, where clean-water advocates such as Pierce Brosnan and Ted Danson live.

Where the tests show a concentration of human waste, inspectors will sleuth out the source. Though they will not request DNA samples from residents to match waste with its human source, they may ask a judge for authority to inspect tanks of property owners who bar them from taking samples.

“It is a big deal that the county is now saying, ‘We’re willing to go on to properties to see what the source of fecal contamination is,”’ says Mark Gold, executive director of the local environmental group Heal the Bay.

Malibu leaders have argued that the pollution comes from a wastewater treatment plant, storm runoff and bird droppings. Malibu actress and animal-rights activist Pamela Anderson contends the real polluter is animal agriculture, such as chicken farms.

“When the results of these tests come back, I’ll bet that once again we’ll find that it’s people’s meat addiction, not their septic tanks, is causing this pollution,” Anderson wrote in an e-mail. “The best thing any of us can do to fight pollution is to adopt a vegetarian diet.”

County officials initially will focus on properties with heavier toilet use, such as restaurants and Barbra Streisand’s old estate.

In 1993, the singer donated her property to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which has held weddings, conferences and public tours at the 22-acre estate. Conservancy spokeswoman Dash Stolarz said the site has a sophisticated septic system and has not hosted a wedding in two years.

$30,000 upgrades
If county officials find suspect systems, they will inform the Los Angeles Water Quality Board. The board could fine homeowners or require them to upgrade their systems at an estimated cost of $30,000.

Board president H. David Nahai says he is optimistic residents will comply with the investigation. “The very cachet of Malibu and the high property values they enjoy are dependent upon a clean ocean,” he says.

Most contamination happens during the winter, when heavy rains overload storm drain and sewage systems, washing waste directly into the sea. Swimming in bacterial-laden waters can cause gastrointestinal, respiratory and other illnesses.

In 1985, 12 miles of coast were closed for more than two months because of sewage. Some of the area’s most famous spots, including legendary Surfrider Beach, have repeatedly received poor grades in Heal the Bay’s annual beach report card.

Water quality has improved through programs mandated by the Clean Water Act and the efforts of conservation groups. A major boost came in September, when the water board announced it would fine Los Angeles County and municipalities surrounding Santa Monica Bay up to $10,000 a day if they did not meet clean water standards.

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