Curbing Industrial Storm Water Pollution in San Francisco Bay

Sep 3, 2013
Deb Self
by Deb Self

Even those of us who commute by ferry may not realize that the Bay Area has more than 1,300 industrial facilities that collectively are responsible for one of the Bay’s greatest pollution problems. The dirty facilities that dot our warehouse districts and frontage roads are largely out of sight of residential areas, though you can see a few from some of the highways that hug the waterfront.

Many industrial activities, such as metal scrapping and waste collection, result in contaminated dust that eventually settles onto outdoor work yards and nearby streets. When the rainy season comes, rainwater washes that contamination right into storm drains that lead to San Francisco Bay, without filtering or treatment.

Industrial runoff typically contains high concentrations of pollutants such as toxic metals and petroleum hydrocarbons. These contaminants place a heavy burden on the Bay’s fish and other animals. For example, salmon exposed to copper pollution lose their sense of smell and their ability to find their spawning streams. Nickel is lethal to birds.

Under the Clean Water Act, industrial facilities are required to implement controls to limit the flow of chemicals to local waterways, but many have failed to put those pollution controls in place. Unfortunately, with California’s enforcement agencies drastically—and increasingly—underfunded, the enforcement backlog is tremendous.

Baykeeper recently uncovered data showing that 95 percent of Bay Area industrial facilities have self-reported violations of the Clean Water Act to the State in recent years, though fewer than five percent of those facilities have been inspected or held accountable by the government for known violations.

Anticipating just such an enforcement gap when it passed the Clean Water Act 30 years ago, Congress included a "citizen suit" provision that allows citizens and groups like Baykeeper to bring lawsuits against polluters to enforce the law when state and federal regulators do not.

Founded 24 years ago as the Bay’s pollution watchdog, Baykeeper has come to play a critical role in filling this enforcement gap. We now have a long history of bringing successful Clean Water Act litigation to reduce industrial storm water pollution in San Francisco Bay—one facility at a time. But last year, when our research showed that this particular cause of pollution had been largely ignored by regulators, we decided to launch a concerted effort, the Bay-Safe Industry Campaign, to rein in the pollution from the many facilities with significant ongoing problems.

Since the beginning of our Bay-Safe Industry Campaign last spring, we have won pollution controls and better practices at a dozen industrial facilities with bad pollution problems. Bringing scientific expertise to the table, we work with facility engineers to develop cost-effective improvements in operations and pollution controls. Typically, the agreements require facilities to employ measures such as placing covers over exposed work sites; positioning absorbent barriers to collect runoff; and installing storm water treatment systems on site.

We also have developed a program for training crews of volunteer investigators to help us with field research. Baykeeper volunteers are out now walking around the edges of industrial sites, looking for telltale signs that include dust and liquids accumulating on the property, machinery and toxic waste stored outdoors and grimy tire tracks. Later, when it rains, staff and volunteers will return to collect samples of runoff from these sites to test for pollution.

San Francisco Bay once teemed with salmon, oysters and other wildlife. Millions of migratory shorebirds using the Pacific flyway still depend on the Bay as a resting spot. Curbing industrial runoff pollution is a vital step toward restoring the Bay. Together, we can help the Bay become, once again, a place where wildlife can thrive and all who fish, swim, boat, kite and surf can enjoy safe water and clean shorelines.

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