Suing Over Septics


Despite years of public outcry at Rincon and other locales, the State Water Board has been slow to adopt mandated regulations on septic systems

Enough is enough.  Although Heal the Bay generally only uses litigation as a last resort, we do have our limits.  On Tuesday, Santa Barbara environmental group Heal the Oceans and Heal the Bay filed a lawsuit against the State Water Resources Control Board for its failure to implement Assembly Bill 885, which required the Board to develop regulations for on-site wastewater treatment systems. AB 885 was authored by former assembly member Hannah-Beth Jackson in 1999 and Gov. Davis signed it into law in 2000. The bill required the Board to develop regulations for the siting, permitting and operation of on-site wastewater treatment systems, or OWTS, by 2004.

The regulations took aim at septic systems, which pose a serious threat to water quality at several famous beaches up and down the coast.  After seven years of patience and a decade of regulatory negotiations with the state, county health agencies, OWTS experts and local government representatives, the environmental groups involved felt that they had no choice but to sue the state to ensure that the law would be implemented. Coast Law Group filed the suit on behalf of the organizations.

Both groups were instrumental in the passage of the law as bill sponsors.  In the 1990s, while Hillary Hauser and Heal the Oceans led efforts to clean up chronically polluted Rincon, Heal the Bay pushed for cleanup at the even more polluted Surfrider Beach.  Both groups noted scientific studies that found human pathogens in the adjacent coastal lagoons — strong evidence that nearby septic systems were causing or contributing to chronic water quality problems that posed health risks to the surfing community.

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Remembering John Robinson

Robinson: an ocean giant

About 15 years ago, I was invited to an advisory board meeting of a start-up pollution cleanup company called AbTech Industries. I didn’t go for the free trip to Santa Barbara, nor as an escape from my toddler sons for a desperately needed good night’s sleep. No, what drew me was a chance to meet famed ocean scientist Sylvia Earle.

When I walked into the advisory board meeting, the extraordinary petroleum-related experience of all of the Ph.Ds in the room awed me. That day I met many of the professors that would later be quoted so prominently after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Barely 10 years into the field by then, I was invited to talk about the stormwater regulatory arena and the potential needs under the Clean Water Act for pollution cleanup technologies. That’s where I met John Robinson.
John didn’t make a very good first impression on me. An obsessive smoker, he offered biting opinions on a wide variety of topics and people. He also seemed to downplay the potential environmental impacts of everyday operations in the petroleum industry. I didn’t understand until years later why he understated those impacts. Day-to-day operational mishaps paled to the environmental horrors he witnessed firsthand at the Amoco Cadiz spill in France, at Valdez and in the Persian Gulf.

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Batting Cleanup

Can you spot the ringer in this All Star lineup?

On an overcast Tuesday morning, a crowd  of 300 volunteers came out to clean the beach at Santa Monica Pier alongside their Los Angeles Dodgers heroes.  Nearly every volunteer was dressed in Dodger gear and some came three hours early to meet Matt Kemp, Rafael Furcal, Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzeula, Derrel Thomas, Sweet Lou Johnson, Shawn Green, Gabe Kapler, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Jay Gibbons.  Despite the drizzle, everyone had a great time picking up trash, getting autographs and listening to the players tell stories of their exploits on the diamond.

The Dodgers visit, courtesy of team exec Howard Sunkin and owner Frank McCourt, marked a stop on a public service caravan around L.A. before the men in blue take off for spring training and the grapefruit league at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz.  Howard introduced me to the players on the team bus and I felt a heckuva lot more nervous than I do testifying at city council.  When Steve Garvey and Fernando came off the bus, I felt like I was in a time machine transported to my days as a teenager obsessed with the outcome of all 162 games on the schedule.  After posing for a “team photo” right next to Fernando, I gathered up the nerve to tell the Dodger legend that I was there to watch him pitch as a 19-year-old call up in the September of 1980.  Ever stoic, Valenzuela shook my hand and said nothing.

Then we walked across the sand to the sea of blue of Dodger fans in front of a standing microphone.  I walked alongside former slugger Shawn Green and asked him some small-talk question about what he was up to now in the O.C.  He answered politely.  I always was a big Greenie fan. Star center fielder Matt Kemp took the long way to mic because he didn’t want to get his new black Nike kicks sandy.  He soon got over that.  Of course, Charlie Steiner emceed the event. Steiner remarked “it was a beautiful day for a ballgame” despite the gloomy drizzle.  He introduced the entire Dodger lineup and then welcomed S.M. Mayor Richard Bloom and me.  That’s right, I got an intro from Charlie Steiner.  How cool is that!

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Fight On!

The Gold Family isn't ready to embrace Traveler fully. But Samohi's victory at USC-hosted Ocean Sciences Bowl helped a bit.

I’m a lifetime Bruin (birth, preschool, bachelor’s, Master’s, doctorate and currently teaching) so the title of this post doesn’t come easy.  I couldn’t bring myself to write “I Heart USC” because of the history:  Rodney Peete running down a certain UCLA football victory or Trojan guard Harold Miner punking the Don MacLean-led Bruins.  My own son Jake wore cardinal and gold braces just to piss me off. Despite the fact I’ve sat on the USC Sea Grant Advisory Board for over a decade, I hate that white horse almost as much as I hate the Trojan fight song.

All of that changed last Saturday.  The Santa Monica High School Vikings (they wear blue and gold and use the UCLA fight song as their own) competed in the Surf Bowl, the L.A.-Orange County competition of NOAA’s regional Ocean Sciences Bowl.  As always, USC and JPL hosted the battle of the aqua-nerds.  Last year, USC played host to another heart-wrenching defeat that shattered the Gold family: Arcadia (clad in cardinal and gold) beat Samohi on the last question of the tourney at the buzzer.  A half-court three-pointer cost Samo a trip to St. Pete, Florida.

This year was different.

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Don’t Forget Water, Jerry

Life imitates art at the L.A. Regional Water Board

Dear Governor Brown:

I understand you are facing California’s budget crisis head on and I agree with your priority setting for the state: digging us out of the budget crisis is priority one through 100. However, on behalf of all of those that care about clean water in the Los Angeles region, we need your help. Making appointments to boards that don’t necessarily share your views on environmental protection is a high priority. Each month that goes by without your appointments could lead to a series of bad decisions.

For example, the Los Angeles Regional Water Board met on Thursday and one of its first orders of business was the approval of a new board chair. Typically, this is a pro-forma decision. The vice chair gets appointed to the chair leadership. Unfortunately, a Coastal Commission hearing broke out at the Simi Valley meeting with politics getting in the way of traditional policy. Every year for the last 10 years, the vice chair has become the chair. Until Thursday.

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