The Gift That Keeps Giving

Last month marked a special treat with the celebration of the Clean Water Act’s 50th birthday. Prior to October 18, 1972, concerned members of the public had few tools to fight the corporations that were polluting our communities and our environment, boaters were instructed to throw their trash overboard into the Bay, and shorelines reeked of raw sewage and toxic chemicals.

The Clean Water Act was a welcome gift for the nation’s waterways. This landmark law has been a key legal tool for the past fifty years, helping win thousands of victories across the country—and helping Baykeeper win for the Bay and the people of the Bay Area.

The law gave state and federal agencies the power to hold polluters in check, and it provided funding for federal pollution prevention programs. More importantly, the law affords any member of the public the legal right to sue to enforce federal and state water quality protections. That provision gives Baykeeper legal footing to do our work.

When Baykeeper’s lawyers win a Clean Water Act lawsuit, most often the polluter we prevailed against in court must fix the problems that caused the pollution in the first place. Those requirements can result in big infrastructure upgrades that have a lasting benefit.

Back in 1994, Exxon and Unocal had to invest nearly $5 million to upgrade their oil refineries to reduce selenium discharges into the Bay. The Levin shipping terminal in Richmond had to stop polluting the Bay and nearby neighborhoods by investing over $2 million to clean up its coal-loading operation in 2014. The City of San Jose committed to invest over $100 million to upgrade its failing storm water systems that were polluting the Bay after we sued the city for pollution under the act in 2019.

Often, our Clean Water Act settlements provide significant gifts to others as well. They include what’s called a “supplemental environmental project,” which is a hefty fine on the polluter for its past pollution. When settlements include this element, the polluter learns that it hurts their bottom line to pollute. And the funds go directly to support local non-profit projects that will deliver environmental and public health benefits.

Over the years, Baykeeper’s Clean Water Act settlements have secured nearly $12 million for non-profits working on restoration, education, health, and environmental justice efforts around the Bay Area (scroll down for examples of these amazing grantees). Much of that funding is awarded as grassroots grants through the Oakland-based Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment. Our settlement agreements direct the funds to the Rose Foundation, which in turn identifies worthy projects to receive the funds and then administers the grants.

It makes me happy to know that no matter where you live in the Bay Area, chances are you’ve personally benefitted from one of these activities. This work matters. It’s the hundreds of partner organizations pitching in to make the Bay Area better. That’s the true legacy of the Clean Water Act. People claiming their right to a clean environment and celebrating the special beauty of the place they call home. And in our case, that’s the best gift of all: a breathtaking San Francisco Bay!

Here are just a handful of the organizations Baykeeper has been proud to support through our settlements:

  • Literacy for Environmental Justice—Toxic soil sampling in SF Bayview
  • GreenAction—Environmental justice and health projects
  • California Sportfishing Protection Alliance—Delta water quality project
  • West County Toxics Coalition—Shoreline clean-up and restoration in Richmond
  • Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment—Central Valley pesticide reduction
  • San Joaquin Audubon Society—San Joaquin River restoration
  • Greenbelt Alliance—Mercury reduction programs
  • Alameda Creek Alliance—Creek restoration
  • Communities for a Better Environment—Toxic fallout remediation
  • Turtle Island Restoration Network—Salmon and watershed protection
  • Friends of the River—Bay-Delta ecosystem and Mokelumne River protection planning
  • Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates—Environmental justice education
  • Green City Project—Oakland storm drain stenciling
  • Student Conservation Association—San Mateo parks conservation crew
  • Hunters View Mothers Committee for Health—Community health, equity, and justice
  • Friends of Napa River—River restoration
  • Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate—Point Molate conservation
  • Friends of Sausal Creek—Creek restoration
  • New Voices Rising—Environmental education in East Palo Alto and Redwood City
  • Wild Oyster Project—Watershed stewardship
  • Sonoma Ecology Center—Fire recovery, resiliency education in under-resourced areas
  • East Bay Academy for Young Scientists—Creek restoration and watershed research
  • Friends of Pinole Creek—Creek restoration
  • Friends of Peralta Hacienda Park—Youth watershed internships at Refugio Creek
  • Santa Clara County Creeks Coalition—Coyote Creek cleanup project
  • Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition—Environmental justice programs
  • The Watershed Project—East Bay watershed education