Earth Days, Birthdays, and more…

Every year on Earth Day, I feel torn. I either despair about how much we need to do to maintain our planet’s health, and then lament that public attention on just one day isn’t going to solve the crisis. Or I feel thankful for the wildflowers, Sierra snow packs, and the Bay’s breathtaking beauty, and then lament that one day is hardly sufficient to celebrate.

But this year is the 50th birthday of the Clean Water Act, and that’s something that breaks my cycle of lamenting and inspires me to celebrate all year long.

The Clean Water Act is perhaps the single most important law that protects America’s waterways. When our government agencies fail to hold polluters accountable, the Clean Water Act allows the public—people like you and me—to step in.

In fact, it’s the Clean Water Act that gives Baykeeper the grounds to defend the public’s right to clean and healthy waters. And over the past 30 years, we’ve used the law to do just that.

Not long after Baykeeper’s founding in 1989, we used the Clean Water Act to force oil giants Exxon and Unocal to clean up selenium pollution from their Bayside operations—the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, and we won. Then we used the law to hold the US Navy responsible for cleaning up the toxic mess they created at the Bayview Hunters Point Shipyard to make it safer for the community to live and swim there—yet the cleanup, sadly, is still ongoing. And later we used the Clean Water Act to compel the US Maritime Administration to remove the polluting fleet of mothballed warships that were rotting and leaching paint and chemicals into the Bay. And on account of that precedent, the government applied the same Clean Water Act rules to other mothballed ships across the country.

All told, Baykeeper has won hundreds of lawsuits that required industrial polluters and government agencies around the Bay to clean up their operations, and we’ve prevailed—all on account of the Clean Water Act.

And now, with the help of that important law, Baykeeper is challenging one of the richest companies in the world after our drone patrol caught the Port of Benicia and the Valero oil refinery in the act of polluting the Bay with dirty petroleum coke. The law is on our side, so we hope to once again successfully protect the health of the Bay and nearby communities.

But I should also acknowledge that this picture is not all rosy. While there’s much to celebrate, the future of the Clean Water Act is uncertain. This year, the US Supreme Court will review a case that could substantially weaken the law by removing waters from the definition of what’s protected—especially if it advances a legal theory first put forward by the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, which the Court had previously rejected. Baykeeper’s experienced attorneys are preparing to submit briefs in the case to help defend the Clean Water Act, but stay tuned… We’ll tell you more about that effort soon.

Despite the looming threat of a severe blow to the scope of the Clean Water Act, I can end on a hopeful note and continue to be thankful that this critical law was born fifty years ago. And you know from reading my past posts that I firmly believe when we work together, we can make a positive difference for the Bay.

I hope to see you out there!

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Sejal Choksi-Chugh
Executive Director