Bay Crossings Article

Protecting the Bay by Watchdogging Government Agencies

By 
Sejal Choksi
From the June 2009 edition of Bay Crossings

San Francisco Bay is at the center of the Bay Area and the extensive network of housing, transit, retail and industry that sustains the more than seven million people that live here. The Bay is a big part of what makes the Bay Area so special, but its close proximity to a major urban area also means that the Bay is constantly bombarded with pollution from Bay Area cities and industrial facilities. It takes an elaborate network of government agencies and organizations to regulate the many sources and types of pollution that threaten the Bay – and sometimes even that isn’t enough. That’s where San Francisco Baykeeper steps in: we make sure these agencies and organizations are doing the best possible job of preventing pollution in the Bay, and when they don’t, we take action to ensure the health and well-being of the Bay, our local wildlife and the communities of the Bay Area.

Many agencies share responsibility for keeping pollution out of the Bay, including the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Department of Toxic Substance Control, the State Lands Commission, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the many municipal governments around the Bay and a collection of more than 40 sewage treatment plants that send our wastewater to the Bay. Given the number of agencies tasked with preventing pollution in the Bay – each with their own set of rules and regulations – it can be a complicated process to ensure that pollution sources are found and stopped. These agencies may lack the resources necessary to conduct investigations into pollution incidents, and they often rely on the polluting entities themselves to accurately report discharges. Additionally, regulators bear constant pressure from polluters trying to avoid complying with regulations, and they don’t always have the resources or political will necessary to effectively enforce the law against polluters. Baykeeper serves a critical watchdog role, educating policymakers about how best to stop pollution, holding agencies accountable when they aren’t strict enough and stepping in with direct legal action against polluters when necessary.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is the primary agency charged with protecting Bay water quality. The Regional Board’s jurisdiction includes the Bay and parts of the San Joaquin, Napa and Guadalupe Rivers, in addition to the many small creeks and tributaries that feed into the Bay. It is one of nine Regional Water Quality Boards across the state, each of which focuses on one of California’s major watersheds. The Regional Boards are part of the State Water Quality Control Board, which implements statewide water pollution policy throughout California. Regional Board members are volunteers appointed by the Governor.

As the agency responsible for implementing state and federal clean water laws in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Regional Water Board plays a key role in protecting the health of San Francisco Bay. Baykeeper is a regular presence at the monthly public hearings held by the San Francisco Regional Board, serving as a voice for the Bay and advocating for the Regional Board to adopt the best possible level of water quality protection. For example, one of the Regional Board’s most important responsibilities is to issue specific pollution limits for companies and municipalities that discharge to the Bay and local waterways. During this process, Baykeeper carefully reviews drafts of the proposed limits and advocates for improvements in order to ensure that the regulations protect water quality, wildlife and people that use the Bay. Our advocacy often provides a critical counterpoint to pressure from companies or municipal agencies trying to convince the Regional Board to weaken or eliminate anti-pollution regulations. In 2007, for example, Baykeeper convinced the Regional Board to create a more aggressive mercury clean-up plan when polluters were pressing for lax regulations. We’ve also pressed the Board to establish stronger regulations for polluted stormwater runoff from city streets, the largest source of pollution to the Bay.

When verbal warnings and investigations are not enough to stop polluters, the Regional Board is authorized to issue monetary penalties based on the severity of the pollution. In extreme circumstances when criminal activity is suspected, the Regional Board can refer the matter to the District Attorney’s Office, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) or the State Attorney General, who can seek civil or criminal penalties for violations. Just last month Baykeeper forwarded to the Regional Board an anonymous tip about a polluter not properly reporting spills of sewage. The Regional Board took the information seriously and forwarded it to the EPA criminal investigations unit, which then began a federal investigation into the allegations. The results of the investigation have yet to be disclosed, but it would be highly unusual for EPA to take such drastic action without sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.

The Regional Board and EPA aren’t the only agencies that can enforce the law against polluters: the Clean Water Act authorizes citizen lawsuits to challenge polluters who are threatening public waterways, and that’s just what Baykeeper does when we determine that the Regional Board has not fulfilled its duty to protect water quality in San Francisco Bay. When the Board fails to compel cities with severe sewage spill problems to fix the issue, we take legal action against the cities to protect the Bay from sewage contamination. In 2008, we successfully secured an agreement from the City of Burlingame to reduce its high rate of sewage spills to the Bay. We’ve also brought numerous lawsuits against industrial facilities when toxic chemicals are being washed into the Bay and the Board isn’t taking action to prevent this threat to the health of the Bay.

Baykeeper is glad to have a cooperative relationship with the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board as we work toward a mutual goal of keeping pollution out of San Francisco Bay. We each play a vital role in protecting the Bay so that it remains a healthy resource for the wildlife and people who depend on it. To learn more about Baykeeper’s involvement with the Regional Water Quality Board and other agencies, as well as our efforts to protect the San Francisco Bay, please visit www.baykeeper.org.