Local Legal Action Yields Nationwide Water Protections
Oakland, CA — Baykeeper and the US Coast Guard reached an agreement today that requires the federal agency to make significant changes to reduce heavy metals and other pollutants from its Yerba Buena Island facility in San Francisco Bay. The agreement also requires the Coast Guard to put a civilian environmental specialist in place to oversee environmental compliance at the facility, as well as to undertake a nationwide review of its buoy maintenance operations to reduce water contamination.
"Today's settlement shows that it's possible for local actions to improve clean water here at home and also have far-reaching impacts nationwide," said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Baykeeper executive director. "This agreement is a big win for the health of San Francisco Bay and the residents of the Bay Area, and for all of the waters of the United States that the Coast Guard serves — as well as for everyone and everything that lives in those environments."
Baykeeper scientists discovered that the Coast Guard was in violation of the Clean Water Act during an annual review of available monitoring data in 2018. The agency had been discharging elevated amounts of heavy metals including copper, zinc, aluminum, and iron directly into the Bay.
Heavy metals are notorious environmental pollutants because they are toxic, do not biodegrade, and because they can build up to dangerous levels in the tissues of fish, birds, and other living organisms. The Coast Guard had been using paint and protective coatings containing copper on its buoys to fend off marine growth like barnacles and slime. Copper is known to be extremely toxic to a wide range of aquatic plants and animals and can be poisonous to humans in large concentrations.
In addition to conducting an agency-wide review of buoy maintenance operations, the Coast Guard's Yerba Buena Island facility is now adopting important new practices including: storing buoy chains indoors to reduce the likelihood of marine growth and to prevent contaminant exposure to rain water, eliminating previously routine buoy sandblasting and welding, and building a new permanent boat washing station that will help contain contaminated waste water.
Baykeeper’s lawyers initiated legal action in 2018, shortly after it was discovered that the Coast Guard was in violation of its permits. Settling the agreement endured several delays, including the government shutdown and delays related to the COVID pandemic.
"I wish every party we took to court was as willing to do the right thing as the Coast Guard," said staff attorney Nicole Sasaki, who led the litigation for Baykeeper. "The Coast Guard immediately acknowledged it needed to do better, and their actions showed they were up to the task. I hope this agreement can serve as an inspiration for other local polluters to do what's right."
There are over 1,600 industrial facilities surrounding San Francisco Bay. Baykeeper is the only organization that regularly patrols the Bay by air and water to investigate pollution. Since 1989, Baykeeper has held polluters accountable through science, advocacy, and legal action, defending the health of San Francisco Bay and Bay Area residents from toxic pollution and the effects of climate change.