Bay Crossings Article

Baykeeper: Protecting the Bay from Pollution for 25 Years

By 
Deb Self
From the June 2014 edition of Bay Crossings

In the late 1980s, San Francisco Bay’s health was in serious decline. Environmental laws were in place to protect the Bay from pollution, but they were not being enforced. Media reports warned that the Bay might even be dying. 

In the face of these threats, Dr. Michael Herz, a researcher and scientist, was inspired to create San Francisco Baykeeper. Since 1989, Baykeeper has patrolled the Bay by boat to find sources of pollution, and taken action to get pollution stopped. 

Baykeeper’s founding was covered by local and national media. Literally overnight, residents began reporting pollution and suspicious incidents to Baykeeper. Our small nonprofit organization soon became known for effectiveness in stopping pollution and creating preventive strategies. And over the past quarter century we have reached many notable milestones. 

In 1993, Baykeeper advocacy led to the president of a seriously polluting company being sentenced to two years in prison. It was one of the first times an environmental crime against San Francisco Bay resulted in jail time.  

We sued a major Bay Area oil refinery—owned at various times by Unocal, Exxon and Tosco—for polluting San Francisco Bay with selenium. Excess selenium can cause death and deformity in birds, and poses similar dangers for people who eat selenium-contaminated seafood. In 1998, Baykeeper’s lawsuit resulted in a legally-binding agreement requiring the refinery to reduce selenium discharges into the Bay to below safe levels. To partly make up for their past pollution, the oil companies paid a $3.875 million fine that was used to restore more than 45 square miles of Bay wetlands.  

In 2000, Baykeeper won a victory that prevented the yearly overflow of as much as 30,000 gallons of sewage into the Bay. We successfully negotiated with the developer of San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood for an improved sewer system designed to prevent sewage overflows.  

When the oil tanker Cosco Busan spilled 53,000 gallons of oily fuel into the bay in 2007, oil stained shorelines and beaches, contaminated wildlife habitat, and killed thousands of birds and other Bay creatures. Baykeeper led the community response to the disaster, with staff and volunteers working round the clock. We patrolled Bay waters and coastlines in our boat. We advocated for more resources to clean up the spill, worked with the media to keep the public informed, organized community members to help, and educated boaters on cleanup. Then in 2008, Baykeeper went on to win statewide legislation to better protect the Bay from future spills and assure a more effective official response when spills happen.

In 2010, we compelled the federal government to clean up the Ghost Fleet. This fleet of 57 decaying surplus military ships had poisoned Suisun Bay, an inlet of San Francisco Bay, with more than 20 tons of heavy metals and toxic substances. The government was required to meet yearly cleanup goals and is now ahead of schedule. Only 13 of the original ships are left, and the worst ships were removed first.

Over the past quarter-century of defending the Bay from pollution, Baykeeper has achieved much more. We’ve compelled hundreds of polluters to protect the Bay from contamination. We’ve won stronger laws and better enforcement of regulations. Baykeeper has changed the fate of San Francisco Bay. 

And we’re not done! Baykeeper is looking ahead to many more years of successful action for a cleaner San Francisco Bay, to ensure that the ecosystem is healthy, the water is safe for recreation and wildlife can thrive.