How Poop-Eating Bacteria Could Clean La Jolla Cove
When San Diego city officials first brainstormed ways to clean up the bird guano at La Jolla Cove, they envisioned processes involving vacuuming or picking up the mess.
A Northern California business presented them with a different option: using bacteria that would eat up the bird poop naturally.
Blue Eagle Products makes liquids containing microorganisms that metabolize all kinds of pollutants, from grease trapped in the CIA’s kitchen (yes, really) to oil spills.
Their method could help the city of San Diego avoid a big obstacle to eliminating the guano and its stench: government regulations say cleaning discharge can’t flow into the ocean below the cliffs. Blue Eagle’s cleanup solution involves spraying the microbes in liquid form onto the rocks, which will dissolve the guano with theoretically no runoff. The company just has to be sure none of that liquid drips into the waters below.
“They use literally squirt bottles, hand applicators, for putting the (cleaning) material down,” said Bill Harris, a spokesman for the city’s Transportation and Storm Water Department. “If they see it starting to get a little too liquidy, they can stop spraying, so it doesn’t run.”
If runoff is created, the plan quickly falls under jurisdiction of agencies like the California Coastal Commission and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. That adds to existing oversight from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which have say because of the wildlife involved.
This week Mayor Bob Filner issued an emergency finding to exempt the cleanup plan from NOAA’s regulation. The question is what other agencies will be watching the cleanup and whether any additional permits or approvals should be required.
Restrictions keeping people from climbing onto La Jolla Cove’s bluffs allowed birds, seals and sea lions to spend more and more time in the area. That accumulation has led to an accumulation of droppings, which created a powerful stench.
How the Microbes Work
San Diego is paying $50,000 to Blue Eagle Distribution to clean up the mess, and could pay an additional $100,000 next year if more applications are required, Harris said. Blue Eagle Products sells its microbial formulas to Blue Eagle Distribution, along with other distributors.
Lance Rodgers, the head of Blue Eagle Distribution, referred questions about the process to the city. But Robert Ahern, the president of Blue Eagle Products, was happy to explain how his microbes work.
“The simple version is to imagine you’re out in the woods,” he said. “A deer falls over dead. You’re left with a mess, but microbes living in the soil wake up and go, ‘oh look, there’s a food source.’ When they finish consuming the remainder of the deer, they die off back to their naturally occurring levels.”
Ahern said his company makes special blends of microbes for a variety of messes. He uses different organisms depending on the type of cleanup. While he has cleaned up bird poop, he hasn’t done it on an ocean bluff before.
For the La Jolla cleanup, he’s using strains of Bacillus microbes, including Amyloliquefaciens, Licheniformis, Pumilus, Subtilis and Megaterium, in case you wanted to know.
Those bacteria have “a really good shot of fixing the problem,” said Kit Pogliano, a professor of biological sciences at UC San Diego.
She said she couldn’t find any scientific research on using the bacteria to clean up bird poop, but that Bacillus is used in a variety of ways, including agriculture and making a fermented soybean product called Natto.
The microbes are safe for humans and wildlife, Pogliano said. And even if some washed into the ocean, they would very likely not have any impact on the environment.
When microbes break down the guano, the only byproducts will be carbon dioxide and water, Ahern said.
However, the microbes are contained in a liquid solution that “looks like it’s water, but it’s not water,” Ahern said. That liquid contains “surface active ingredients,” which allows microbes to penetrate the guano, and an acrylic coating, which acts as a thickening agent that keeps the microbes in the liquid.
The activation ingredient is made from coconut palm trees and the thickening agent is nontoxic and biodegradable, Ahern said.
Regulations at the Cove
Because La Jolla Cove is one of 34 designated Areas of Special Biological Significance, multiple agencies must agree to any cleanup solution.
“Cleanup can’t cause anything to go into the water,” city spokesman Harris said.
Blue Eagle says its process won’t let any liquid fall to the ocean below. If that’s true, the plan does not need approval from the California Coastal Commission or the Regional Water Control Board, according to spokespeople from each agency.
“If there were any discharge of this agent into the water, it would require a permit,” said Kanani Brown, a coastal program analyst with the Coastal Commission. “But if it’s used in small quantities, or is a pilot program, then it doesn’t.”
It will take 550 gallons to cover the cliff’s 37,000 square feet, or more if multiple applications are needed, according to Blue Eagle.
Brown said she believes the city will be monitoring the process and would need to issue itself an exemption or a city coastal development permit “which would stipulate that if there was any discharge they’d stop work or require that they consult with us.”
But Harris says the city doesn’t need a city permit.
“This is a maintenance activity so it’s exempt from that requirement,” he said.
The city requires a coastal development permit if repair or maintenance is “within 50 feet of a coastal bluff edge or wetland, or within 20 feet of any coastal waters or streams,” but only if that maintenance moves rocks, sand or other beach materials or involves the presence of mechanized equipment or construction materials.
A permit could also be required if repair impedes public access to the shoreline and if construction would restrict roads or parking areas near the ocean between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife and NOAA could also have to approve the plan because it will impact birds and marine mammals. Cleanup of the cliffs won’t begin until June 10 to avoid nesting season. To get around the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassing marine mammals, Filner issued an emergency finding saying “accumulation of bird waste is a public health hazard that threatens public health, safety and welfare.”
“The city has been besieged by the results of those accumulations,” Harris said. “There’s smell, there’s occasional airborne stuff when it gets picked up in dry weather. It’s a real big concern. It is a health concern that rose to the level of emergency in the mind of Mayor Filner.”
When news of the cleanup method, and Filner’s emergency finding, was announced, some wondered why environmental groups didn't object, or even sue the mayor, as they've done in previous administrations.
But Marco Gonzalez, managing partner of the environmental law firm Coast Law Group, said he approves of Filner's methods.
The mayor brought the plan to many environmental groups in the community, as well as the Coastal Commission and Regional Water Quality Control Board, and asked for their input before releasing it.
“If (former Mayor Jerry Sanders) was doing this, he would have done it unilaterally without consulting anyone in the community except his buddies,” Gonzalez said. “The fact that Bob early on reached out and took our input is a big difference between him and Jerry.”
Gonzalez said he’d prefer to leave the cliffs as they are. But if a cleanup has to happen, he said he’s on board with the microbial method.
He is more focused on his lawsuit against the city over fireworks and won’t directly monitor the application process to ensure runoff isn’t created. But Gonzalez said he thinks if there’s a problem, he’ll hear about it.
“A lot of people will be looking over their shoulder,” he said, including the Regional Water Board, the Coastal Commission and volunteers who monitor the seals at the La Jolla Children’s Pool.
“There are a thousand people down there regularly, and one of them could pick up the phone one day and say, I saw this going on,” Gonzalez said.
So it seems the cleanup solution has jumped through all possible legal and regulation hurdles, at least for now. After a testing day on Tuesday, full application of the microbes will start on June 10.
Ahern said La Jolla residents can expect “a dramatically noticeable improvement” right away.