Sacrificing the Bay for Little Gain : Environmental groups pay a high price to be inside players in the coastal restoration plan.

State Sen. Tom Hayden, a Democrat representing parts of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee

For five years, the public has been lulled into believing that Santa Monica Bay pollution would be solved by a restoration plan that is the product of a happy consensus between industry and environmentalists.

The plan, approved last week by Gov. Pete Wilson, is a retreat from tough regulatory controls to protect the ocean. If approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plan’s voluntary approach will become a national model. Here also is a case study of what happens when environmental groups surrender their independent voice to become inside players.

This plan will not restore the bay. Instead, it proposes “maintaining current emission levels” of pollutants flowing into the bay. Its $67-million price tag is for further management, not cleanup, and has scant foreseeable funding.


Its priority actions are hazy suggestions to the very government officials and regulators responsible for decades of pollution: Rather than reductions of polluted runoff, setting limits would only be “investigated”; enforcement mechanisms would perhaps be created “where necessary”; toxic hot spots would be “evaluated for the purposes of characterization.”

The plan does not propose:

* Greater safeguards on the hundreds of oil tankers that use Chevron’s bay facility. One spilled 29,000 gallons of oil three years ago, as the plan was being drafted.

* Dealing with the 9 million cubic meters of cancer-causing DDT and PCBs off Palos Verdes since the 1960s.

* Warning people that 200,000 pounds of DDT-PCB-laced white croaker are sold in local markets every year.

* Protecting billions of fish eggs and larvae destroyed by 1 billion gallons of “cooling water” discharged daily by power plants owned by Southern California Edison and the Department of Water and Power.

The plan is feeble at its core because Chevron, Edison, DWP and sewer agencies had veto power in the committee that wrote it. The plan focuses on public education, research and voluntary measures because that was all that industry and environmentalists could agree on.


Instead of a bay watchdog, the restoration project became a lap dog of the very regulators it should have criticized. The project itself is funded by and physically housed in the regional water quality control board and its executive director is a top employee of the regulatory agency.

The regional board appointed by Wilson is woefully lax on enforcement. The governor, an apostle of “regulatory relief,” is tough on crime except for violators of environmental laws. Then his appointees turn liberal and try to rehabilitate the lawbreakers through incentives.

The regional board has one person to watchdog 20,000 firms with industrial discharge permits. In 1993-94, its storm-water regulators issued no fines or abatement orders. Its occasional environmental gestures arise from media pressure or lawsuits.

There is no way to clean up Santa Monica Bay without cleaning up the influence of polluters and dischargers over the regulatory process. The political appointees to the boards can even earn up to 10% of their personal income from those they regulate.

The industry agenda toward the plan was clear: contain the hot issue of ocean pollution, placate public opinion and head off reform. The governor’s agenda was clear, too: a pro-industry plan packaged as environmentalism to challenge “excessive” federal clean-water regulations.

But why have some respected coastal advocates supported this flawed document? The simplified answer is they were co-opted in the sticky swamp of consensus. They got lots of money for valid research and small grants for streambed repair. They helped facilitate a beach-closure protocol. For such minor gains, they gave their seal of approval to a plan that lets dischargers and polluters off the hook.


Worse, the “new consensus” leads to a respected group like Heal the Bay taking money from Chevron, and the American Oceans Campaign lending its good name to joint projects with Unocal, the largest despoiler of our coast.

There are environmental dissenters from this pro-industry consensus. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Baykeeper have urged the EPA not to certify the plan unless it is strengthened.

Starting with banning DDT in 1972, to sewage cleanup orders in the 1980s and ‘90s, down to the recent court decision that Caltrans must prevent street pollutants from washing into the bay, there has been one lesson: citizen action, legislative pressure, media exposure and lawsuits have made all the difference in healing the bay.