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.

Since that first meeting, I became friends with John and his wife Francesca Cava. Because of Francesca’s stints at the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, the Coastal Commission and the National Geographic Society, most of my work had been conducted with her. I spent some time getting to know John better through Hillary Hauser’s Heal the Oceans organization up in the Santa Barbara area.

We had numerous discussions on such scintillating dinner topics as septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants. Unlike most people at dinner parties that get stuck listening to me, John enjoyed the conversations.

As I got to know John, I realized that my first impressions about him were wrong. He had his idiosyncracies, but he certainly loved the ocean and the environment dearly. I badly misinterpreted his comments on the environmental impacts of polluted runoff. For John, compared to the horrors of the Persian Gulf and the Valdez, a leaky oil pan really wasn’t that big of a deal.

John and Francesca were the two most unassuming, modest environmental leaders I’ve ever met. If I hadn’t drilled them like an investigative reporter, I doubt if I ever would have found out about the extraordinary adventures that they experienced. John wasn’t just at the Valdez and Gulf spills, he was NOAA’s chief scientist for the Valdez cleanup and the response and scientific study of the Kuwait-Gulf disaster. When Francesca (she never talked about being a captain for NOAA research vessels) was kind enough to speak to graduate students in the UCLA coastal pollution class I taught in 1999, I was stunned by the scope and scale of the eco-disasters so vividly captured in her slide presentation.

It took reading Hillary Hauser’s article in the Santa Barbara paper that I even knew John used to work at NASA. He was both a rocket and ocean scientist. After retirement from NOAA, John couldn’t sit still. He constantly sought solutions to the world’s problems. He’d delve into sewage issues and then invent software for firefighters to better respond to toxic emergencies. He spent countless hours trying to figure out ways to harness clean energy through the capture of energy released from stored water flowing from an elevated reservoir. John’s mind was always going –and in his mind, every problem needed a solution and life was too short to wait for someone else to figure it out.

John Robinson passed away of brain cancer this week.

For me, his death brought back memories of Dorothy Green, who also passed away from brain cancer just over two years ago. At first glance, John and Dorothy couldn’t have been more different. John was often aloof and his often searing criticism didn’t exactly endear him to the public. Also, John was the consummate nerd, always curious about the latest technological solutions to the world’s problems. But John and Dorothy shared a passion for solving the region’s water quality problems and a love for classical music. With both John and Dorothy, their beautiful minds  never stopped working and small talk was for the idle.

Now, with the loss of both of them, the oceans and coastal watersheds have lost true heroes and leaders that will be sorely missed for decades to come.


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