Rights of Nature in Santa Monica

Santa Monica may follow Pittsburgh's footsteps in codifying fundamental rights of nature.

In the Citizens United case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that corporations have the same rights as citizens. The ruling already has changed the face of electoral politics in America, with unlimited campaign contributions by corporations for communications now apparently a First Amendment right. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously stated in Iowa last August that corporations are persons.  And the Occupy movement has continually spoken out about the disproportionate influence of Big Business in the United States.

In response to the corporate personhood issue, and the lack of progress statewide and nationally on a wide variety of environmental issues, the Santa Monica Task Force on the Environment worked with Global Exchange, Earthlaw and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to develop a draft Sustainability Bill of Rights.  The draft includes elements of the Rights of Nature ordinances that have passed in Pittsburgh and numerous towns concerned about the impacts of industry on local water supplies.

The draft also includes elements of Santa Monica’s renowned Sustainable City Plan, which was first approved by city council 17 years ago. And finally, the draft includes fundamental environmental rights that every person should have.  These are a modified version of the environmental bill of rights I recommended back in 2008 in this blog.

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Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Citing health concerns, State Parks has put the kibosh on the notion of creating a dog beach in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy of OC Weekly.

In Santa Monica, there are two environmental issues that seem to come up every five years like clockwork: fluoridation of drinking water and dog beaches.  A few weeks ago, the Santa Monica City Council decided to mollify the dog beach supporters by voting 6-1 to study the feasibility of a dog beach in the city.  

Thankfully, the latest battle over dog beaches seems to have come to an abrupt end with state officials making it clear to Santa Monica staff that they will not provide necessary approvals. 

As the president of Heal the Bay, a scientist with a doctorate on the health risks of swimming at polluted beaches, the owner of three rescue dogs, a father of three, and the longtime chair of the city’s Environmental Task Force, I’ve been involved at every level imaginable of the great dog beach debate for 15 years.

Although Santa Monica beach water quality has improved dramatically in the last three years (thanks to voter support of Measure V), our beaches still don’t consistently meet water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

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Cowell Doesn’t Give a Toss About the Beach

Thank you Simon Cowell.  An irate Heal the Bay member wrote a scathing e-mail encouraging us to take a stand against your ocean pollution commercial. It’s bad enough that my 12-year-old daughter Natalie is obsessed with his “American Idol” rip-off, “The X-Factor.”  (Try getting her to study when she’s sucked into the battle among Kitty, Misha B and 2 Shoes.) But now he’s doing a Verizon “X-Factor” app promo that encourages the trashing of a Malibu beach. In the spot, Cowell is seen tossing cell phones off his beachside balcony onto the shoreline while disparaging them as rubbish.

Cell phones contain a wide variety of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc. They also can contain brominated flame retardants and phthalates. Perpetuating our throwaway culture to over 12 million viewers isn’t exactly helping the cause of ocean conservation.

Cowell ends the spot by admonishing a family on the beach to not pick up the trash.  Even the leashed puppy complies with the bombastic Brit’s orders. If Cowell gets busted for bad behavior, I hope his community service is participation in Coastal Cleanup Day for life.

The Brits are always giving us trash: Gordon Ramsay, The Osbournes, the Spice Girls, Jason Statham, soccer (just kidding on that one, sort of).  Now they’re trashing our beaches.  Wasn’t British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill bad enough?

Saving For a Rainy Day

New guidelines issued this week by L.A. County will lead to increased use of rainwater barrels.

L.A. County’s Department of Public Health has just released rainwater harvesting guidelines that  help transform the region’s management of stormwater runoff.  The guidelines apply to rainwater harvesting projects, including rain barrels and cisterns, and they significantly shift the approach from treating rainwater as a pollution source and flood control problem to managing it as a critical resource.

The guidelines were released at the site of a massive Proposition O project at Penmar Park in Venice.  A giant pit and a huge dirt mound served as the backdrop Tuesday for the modest press event (the Conrad Murray verdict occurred an hour earlier).  The Penmar Park project will capture runoff from the watershed from south-east Sunset Park in Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Airport and the Rose Avenue neighborhood near Walgrove Avenue.  The cistern will store approximately 1 million gallons of runoff, which will then be disinfected and used for irrigation at the Penmar golf course and park.

The rainwater harvesting guidelines were negotiated over a two-year period with the City of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and the environmental community, led by Heal the Bay and Treepeople.  They provide clarity and certainty to project developers on how to move forward with projects that capture and reuse rainwater.  L.A. County Public Health, especially Angelo Bellomo and Kenneth Murray, earn major props for moving the guidelines forward.

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A Consistent Message at WEFTEC

Water convention attendees want more regulatory clarity.

The WEFTEC water quality conference, with its acres of pumps, filters, water treatment devices and other gizmos, moved out of the L.A. Convention Center last week. But I’m still thinking about what the 20,000-person gathering of H2O nerds means for our nation’s waters.  I was asked to give three talks at the conference: one on the public view of chemicals of emerging concern in recycled water; another on the future of stormwater regulation for cities and industry; and a discussion on the greening of Los Angeles through stormwater projects and regulation.

After the debates with water professionals, I was struck by a common need:  Everyone wants greater regulatory consistency and clarity.

The current federal approach is for regulations, memos, and policies to have  a great deal of  “flexibility.” But that wiggle room means that there isn’t much incentive to improve water quality programs.  Any investor in cutting-edge water treatment technology should have the expectation that the regulatory climate will push everyone to cleaner water that is more protective of human health and aquatic life.

Without that regulatory certainty, there’s no incentive for cities or industry to buy more expensive, more effective water pollution technologies other than “doing the right thing.”  Based on the lack of progress on stormwater pollution abatement nationwide, the altruistic approach has resulted in limited success.

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Stop the Presses! Government Works!

L.A. City Council's prudent decision to raise sewer fees will let crews replace deteriorating infrastructure.

The Los Angeles City Council today took the bold step of supporting unanimously a substantial sewage service fee increase. The household fee will incrementally increase from an average of $29 a month to $53 a month over the next 10 years. The hike will generate an additional $1.8 billion over the next decade to pay for much-needed sewer and sewage treatment plant maintenance, repairs and replacement.

 I’ve been going to council meetings for over 25 years and this was the most sophisticated and intelligent council discussion on wastewater that I’ve ever seen. The lack of public opposition to the rate increase underscores the Bureau of Sanitation’s effectiveness in educating the public. Even the Chamber of Commerce strongly supported the measure.

The end result? Multiple wins – for public health, for the environment, for long-term, sustainable green jobs.  It also marks a step in the restoration of my faith in the public process.

If the L.A. City Council can unanimously approve a major sewer service rate increase during an ongoing recession, then there is hope for government elsewhere to provide leadership on other environmental and green jobs issues. Today, L.A. understood that sewage infrastructure may be out of sight, but it can never be out of mind.

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WEFTEC Flexes Its Mussels

Sea shells find a second life at the world's largest water quality convention.

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew King, communications director for Heal the Bay.

In my past life as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, I covered way too many film and TV trade shows. Heavy on the glitz and light on substance, these promotional confabs left you exhausted from sensory overload. The studios pulled out all the stops: Jumbotron video banks, hip-hop performances, prancing bikini babes, fog machines, you name it …

As you might imagine, attending something called the Water Environment Federation’s 84th Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference is a bit tamer. But what the world’s largest water quality conference and exhibition lacks in wacky, it certainly makes up in wonky.

Held this week at the Los Angeles Convention Center, WEFTEC 2011 features a dizzying array of the latest technologies and equipment involved in water treatment and sustainability.  I had been kindly invited to check out the conference by Alec Mackie, who serves as VP of the Los Angeles Basin unit of the California Water Environment Assn.

Staring out at the endless sea of UV filtration systems, contaminant and nutrient removal services, data monitors and old-fashioned infrastructure like pumps and pipes, I immediately thought of Mark Gold, Heal the Bay president and self-admitted water geek . With 20,000 participants spread over three giant exhibition halls, this was a veritable Versailles of wastewater. Gold must be in heaven, I thought. Unfortunately, I’m neither an engineer nor a scientist. I felt like a Stranger in a Strange Land.

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A Breach of Faith

A mass die-off of marine life this week at Surfrider Beach coincided with a breach of Malibu Lagoon.

Today’s guest blogger is Sarah Sikich, Heal the Bay’s Coastal Resources Director. She’s also a Malibu resident.

When people talk about the Malibu stench, it’s usually in reference to septic-related smells. But, there’s a different stink in Malibu right now – that of rotting, dead marine life along Surfrider Beach. It’s impossible to walk along the stretch of beach between the Malibu Pier and the Colony without noticing the thousands of dead urchins washed ashore, strewn amid the seaweed, driftwood and swarms of kelp flies. There’s even an occasional dead lobster, sea hare and seabird in the mix.

I noticed it first over the weekend after heading to Surfrider for a mid-day surf. I had to tread carefully across the beach to avoid stepping on the prickly decaying urchins. I went back down to the beach this week to take some photos of the shocking mass mortality.

Some folks may remember a similar die-off October of last year, after someone artificially and illegally breached the lagoon in advance of projected good surf. The recent mortality seems to have coincided with the breaching of Malibu Lagoon last week. The latest breach occurred near Third Point toward the end of last week, around the same time as our first storm of the year, as well as a late season south swell.

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Reading, Writing … and Recycling

EEI: Environmental literacy inches closer in California

Unfortunately, discussions about the future of K-12 public education in California typically focus on the state’s massive budget problems.  Talks of educational reform seem to exclusively revolve around teacher accountability and charter schools.  Very little of the dialogue centers on how we can educate students more effectively and with new, engaging curriculum. 

But on Oct. 17-18, environmental content will be the focus at the Green California Schools Summit at the Pasadena Convention Center.

California’s budget crisis has been so severe that students have not received new textbooks in the last three years, and they may not receive new ones until 2015.  That means that a student that was a fifth grader in 2008 will never use a state textbook to learn about the United States’ first African American President, the loss of Pluto as a planet, or the global economic recession.

However, an interim solution for environmental education is moving forward: the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI). It’s progress, but the curriculum program to develop environmental literacy in California’s 6 million public school students and their 150,000 teachers won’t reach classrooms in the next few years.

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Protecting Toddlers

Milk, not BPA, for babies

As a Jewish parent and environmental scientist, I am consumed by guilt for taking the baby bottle shortcut when feeding our kids many years ago.  Yes, I put formula, and even – gasp –breast milk, in a plastic bottle and heated  it for 30 seconds in the microwave to satiate our kids and get them to stop crying. Who knows what was leached from those indestructible, clear plastic baby bottles while I was heating milk to lukewarm temperatures.

Of all people, I should have known better.  As more information came out in the public health literature about the risks of consuming Bisphenol A (BPA), an organic chemical used to produce polycarbonate plastics that are clear and nearly shatterproof, my guilt grew over exposing my three kids to an endocrine disrupting, potential neurotoxin and carcinogen.

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