Fifty years ago, America’s waterways were choked with sewage and industrial runoff. Cities, corporations, and individuals treated bodies of water across the country, including San Francisco Bay, like dumps. Wastewater plants released raw sewage directly into the Bay and industrial facilities spewed toxic waste onto the shoreline and into the Bay, rivers, and creeks. Even recreational boaters were instructed to throw their trash into the water.
By the late ’60s, the public realized their beloved waterways had turned into poisonous cesspools. Two events in 1969—a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara and the Cuyahoga River catching on fire—galvanized the emerging environmental movement, and in 1972, the Clean Water Act was born. Today, Clean Water Act standards prevent an estimated 700 billion pounds of toxic pollution—the equivalent of 6 pounds of pollution per American per day—from entering US waters every single year!
The Bay Area is no exception. The Clean Water Act has been a powerful tool in our over three decades of work defending the Bay and its tributaries. Some of our landmark Clean Water Act cases include victories against:
- The oil giants Exxon and Unocal for releasing toxic selenium into the Bay, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
- The US Navy over the mothball fleet of Suisun Bay, leading to the removal of 57 disintegrating warships that had polluted the watershed with heavy metals for decades.
- Local wastewater agencies for releasing raw and undertreated sewage into the Bay, leading to a reduction of sewage spills by 75% across ten Bay Area cities.
- The Levin coal export terminal, for releasing coal dust and toxic petroleum coke into the Bay. The site has since been cleaned up and, as a result of a separate case, the terminal will have to stop exporting coal and coke products entirely by 2026.
- The Trump Administration and corporate behemoth Cargill, which deceptively claimed that the Redwood City salt ponds weren’t water to avoid environmental protections for this vital shoreline area.
- And most recently in a new case, Baykeeper took legal action against the oil refinery Valero and Port of Benicia for releasing toxic petroleum coke into the North Bay.
The Clean Water Act is, without a doubt, the bedrock of legal protection for America’s waters and of Baykeeper’s work defending the Bay. But the Act’s work is far from over. Many waterways across the country—and even around the Bay Area—are not yet fishable or swimmable. As we celebrate the Clean Water Act’s 50th birthday, it’s critical that we continue to enforce and strengthen this vital water law for our future generations.
Pictured, above: raw sewage being discharged into the Bay circa 1970 (photo by US EPA)
Do you have a tip for us? Eye-witness accounts and whistleblowers are key to our work identifying polluters and other threats to the Bay. Click here to reach out to our pollution hotline.