Stopping Bay Pollution One Boat Patrol at a Time

Jun 1, 2016
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

From the deck of Baykeeper’s 24-foot patrol boat on San Francisco Bay, we saw large black piles of petroleum coke looming along the Richmond shoreline. One pile was much higher than a low wall that barely held it back from the Bay. Coke was accumulating near the top of the wall, ready to fall into the water. Above the piles, a giant conveyor belt transferred the material into a huge ocean-bound ship, with coke dust escaping from all sides. And black particles were slipping down between the wooden slats of the loading dock, into the water.

The threat to San Francisco Bay’s health was evident. Petroleum coke is a toxic byproduct of oil refining. It gets exported and burned for fuel in nations with less protective air quality laws. It contains heavy metals and dangerous compounds that, when dumped into the water, harm fish and wildlife.

Once a week, Baykeeper patrols San Francisco Bay, looking for signs of illegal pollution and following up on tips received on our pollution hotline. No other organization or local government agency proactively searches for pollution from a boat in the Bay. Our small nonprofit organization has filled this role for more than 25 years.

We investigate from the water because many sources of pollution can be difficult to detect from land. Much of the Bay’s shoreline, especially in industrial areas, is inaccessible to the public. And for Baykeeper, finding pollution is the first step toward stopping it.

Once we saw the coke piles, Baykeeper took the next steps. We researched the facility and learned it was a bulk shipping terminal that handles other toxic products, including coal. Staff members went back to the terminal when it rained and collected samples of rainwater that ran off the site. Lab results showed that the samples contained toxic metals many times over EPA pollution limits.

Next, we notified the company of its pollution problems and filed a lawsuit against it for violating the federal Clean Water Act. The result was a legally-binding agreement requiring the terminal to invest over $1 million to implement extensive pollution controls to protect San Francisco Bay from contamination.

In three locations where rainwater runs off the property and eventually into the Bay, the company agreed to install high-quality advanced water capture and treatment systems. In addition, the company changed practices to use only closed conveyors to load toxic materials onto ships. The wooden dock is now completely sealed, so that toxic material will not slip through into the Bay. Piles of coke and other materials are required to be kept lower than the boundary walls, with water misters to control dust. 

For the next few years, Baykeeper’s job will be to ensure the facility is complying with the pollution control agreement. During the winter rains this year, samples of water running off the site showed big reductions in pollution.

However, the terminal still has more work to do. Its closed conveyor system sometimes leaks toxic dust, and one more advanced water treatment system needs to be installed. Baykeeper will keep monitoring from the Baykeeper boat and conducting on-site inspections until the terminal’s pollution is below harmful levels.

While one boat patrol can lead to a big reduction in pollution in San Francisco Bay, on other boat patrols we find signs of a healthy Bay ecosystem, including harbor seals, sea lions and flocks of water birds feasting on fish. To learn more about Baykeeper and support out work, visit our website at  And see you on the Bay!

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