Mark Gold grew up around Santa Monica Bay.
As a child, he learned to swim at Marina del Rey. Later, he hung out with friends at Will Rogers State Beach. By the time he got to high school, his family had moved from Beverly Hills to Malibu, where he spent endless summers bodysurfing at a break the locals call "Little Dume."
At 28, Gold still lives for the ocean. But now, it's his job.
As staff scientist for the environmental group Heal the Bay, he has become a leader in the effort to clean up Santa Monica Bay. Respected in the activist community and among government bureaucrats and waste dischargers, Gold has brought scientific rigor and credibility to lobbying on behalf of Los Angeles' reigning environmental cause.
In the process, he has helped define the sources and types of bay pollution--even forcing the closure of a popular Santa Monica Beach last year when he found sewage in a storm drain. Gold has also led the fight for increased warnings to keep the public out of polluted waters, reported on the failure of local cities to properly monitor the waste that flows into storm drains, and spurred negotiations for improved treatment of the sewage that the county discharges into the ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
"A lot of environmental groups can send someone to a hearing to read an impassioned letter," said Adi Liberman, Heal the Bay's executive director. "But Mark is there with expert testimony. No one else (in the local environmental community) can speak with the kind of authority and respect that he can."
Craig Wilson, chief of the Bays and Estuaries unit of the state Water Resources Control Board, agreed: "Mark brought Heal the Bay a lot of technical information and a strong contact in the scientific community."
Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay was born in 1985, at a time when there had been several major sewage spills and when bay pollution was becoming a hot political issue. Although it had only a handful of members, the group began to publicize Santa Monica Bay pollution and to fight a move by the city of Los Angeles to give less than full treatment to sewage coming from the massive Hyperion Treatment Plant near El Segundo.
In 1987, a federal judge ordered the city of Los Angeles to stop dumping sewage sludge in the bay and to upgrade treatment at the Hyperion Plant. Heal the Bay was assigned by the court to monitor compliance with the landmark environmental agreement.
"It was like we won the first battle, but then the real war starts," recalled Felicia Marcus, a Heal the Bay founder who now helps control the sewage plant as president of the city's Board of Public Works. "We had to stay in their face to make sure it all got done."
It was Gold, working toward a doctorate at UCLA in Environmental Science and Engineering, who was chosen in 1988 to monitor the city's compliance and to act as Heal the Bay's staff scientist.
Gold had worked for a time for an environmental consulting firm. One of the projects he dealt with there proposed turning ecologically sensitive Ballona Lagoon in Venice into a marina.
"I thought to myself, 'What am I doing?' " Gold recalled. "It just never seemed right. I wasn't comfortable doing that kind of work for a massive development project.
"I had been close to Santa Monica Bay for a real long time," he said. "And I really wanted to apply what I was learning . . . to something I cared about."
Although they had increasing clout and succeeded in drawing public attention to pollution in the bay, Heal the Bay members in the early days sometimes tended toward hyperbole. Some "liked to shoot from the hip," Marcus conceded.
At a hearing before the Regional Water Quality Control Board just weeks before Gold was hired, for instance, two group members in white lab coats held aloft a smelly bottle of muck and declared that one-quarter of the underwater shelf off the Palos Verdes Peninsula was made of sewer sludge, observers recalled.
"There was no serious study to show that this was true," said one person familiar with the hearing, who asked not to be named. "It really damaged their credibility."
Heal the Bay founding president Dorothy Green did not recall that hearing at the Regional Water Quality Control Board and insisted the group has always been careful about the information it presented.
But Green said she hired Gold, "realizing that an organization is only as credible as the information it has."
Gold quickly expanded his work from oversight of the Hyperion improvements to a myriad of other projects, including some that are ongoing:
* A comprehensive analysis of water in a few notorious storm drains. When the study, under the auspices of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, was released in June, 1990, it showed that the drain at the foot of Pico Boulevard had been polluted with sewage.
Signs and a rope with buoys were subsequently installed to warn swimmers to stay away from the water near the mouth of the storm drain, just south of Santa Monica Pier. Gold recently helped negotiate an agreement so the polluted storm water can be redirected to Hyperion for full treatment.
* A survey this year that showed local cities are woefully behind in complying with a federal program that requires them to measure and begin to control pollution that flows into storm drains.
* Negotiations, along with a lawyer from the Natural Resources Defense Council, that seek to end the dumping of partially treated sewage by the county Sanitation Districts into the bay.
* A study that quantified household hazardous wastes that people dump into the trash and the streets, which eventually find their way into storm drains and, thus, the ocean.
* A protocol, soon to be considered by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, that he helped write, instructing public officials in closing Santa Monica Bay beaches when spills endanger the public health.
Gold said he is "extremely well paid" at $45,000 a year--even though he could make at least half again as much in the private sector--because he enjoys what he is doing. His work on storm drains also will be the basis for the dissertation that he hopes to complete by this summer.
Supporters say his growth as a speaker and an advocate has been even greater than as a scientist. "He came to us with no political skills," Green said. "He knew the issues, but he didn't know how to translate that into political action. Now he really directs that whole part of the organization."
Gold's impact has been so great that at least one other local environmental group, the Coalition for Clean Air, has been persuaded to hire its own staff scientist.
"Mark is one of the first guys I've met who is a Ph.D.-quality scientist, but who also knows how to speak English," said Tim Little, the clean air group's executive director. "We went out and tried to find a clone of him."
Even Jim Stahl, the assistant general manager of the Sanitation Districts, who has often been at odds with Gold in negotiations over the county's sewage treatment, said: "He has attempted at all times to bring science and scientific facts into the decision-making process, rather than perception. I think it's an improvement over how things were in the past."
Heal the Bay and Gold are not loved in all quarters, though. Some waste dischargers and public health officials said the group can still be too alarmist--not giving enough credit for improvements in sewage treatment and unduly fanning public concern about the health impacts of swimming in Santa Monica Bay.
"In every organization, there is an audience and an agenda," said one official, who asked not to be named.
Gold counters that he would rather err on the side of caution by warning the public when there are any signs of serious contamination.
He said one of his long-term goals is to help settle that long-running debate over the safety of swimming in the bay, particularly near storm drains. His drain studies already have laid the groundwork for a comprehensive health survey that would determine, once and for all, whether people are getting sick from swimming near the outlets.
"It's something I have been pushing for since I started working here," Gold said. "People still are asking, 'Is it safe to swim in Santa Monica Bay?' You have people so polarized on that issue."
In the meantime, Gold still lives near the ocean--in Santa Monica with his wife, Lisette Bauersachs, an environmental engineer whom he met in the UCLA program. And he still loves to swim in the bay.
"But I follow all our good advice," said Gold, ever the advocate. "Which is: Don't swim within two days of a storm and don't swim within 100 yards of a flowing storm drain."