“In the mid to late 1990s, we saw a lot of contamination — from places like the shipyards in particular — flowing freely off those sites, like Southwest Marine and NASSCO [National Steel and Shipyard Company],” says Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper.
“When they were working on those ships — painting them, cleaning them — they really didn’t have any pollution control, any policies or procedures. You could see paint and toxins flowing into the bay.”
Reznik partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council in the late ’90s and sued Southwest Marine, “the Navy’s largest ship-repair and maintenance facility on the West Coast.” In June 2002, when the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the shipyard’s appeal, the company was fined $799,000 and instructed to reduce the amount of pollution it was discharging into San Diego Bay.
“They were required to build a storm-water capture-and-treatment device and send a lot of their waste over to Point Loma,” says Reznik. During litigation a judge ordered divers to investigate the area (now owned by defense company BAE Systems). “Essentially, the leaseholds were devoid of life — everything around where those shipyards were was dead in the bay. Contamination had been going on literally for decades.”
As part of their crusade to promote a healthy ocean, San Diego Coastkeeper hosts bimonthly beach cleanups. The next takes place at Buccaneer Beach in Oceanside on Saturday, June 14.
“At our average cleanup, we have well over 100 volunteers,” says Reznik. According to Coastkeeper’s annual report, last year more than 2800 volunteers removed three and a half tons of trash from local beaches as part of the monthly cleanups. Debris included cigarette butts, plastic food containers, Styrofoam, syringes, and fireworks.
“Most people see [cleanups] as a way to beautify their beaches, but what a lot of folks don’t realize is that when you do that, you’re actually protecting the ocean. One of the biggest contamination issues is plastics, which get into the ocean and become marine debris and don’t break down.”
Much of the rubbish from the California coast ends up in the North Pacific gyre. “A gyre is a current system,” Reznik explains. “According to studies right now, in the top layer of the ocean, plastic outweighs natural plankton, which is the base of the food chain, by at least a six-to-one ratio in the gyre. It is estimated that that area called the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is as large as one to two times the size of the entire continental United States.” Some oceanographers estimate there is in excess of 100 million tons of trash collected in the gyre, located between California and Japan.
Perhaps the most insidious type of plastic debris is the nurdle, plastic pellets that come from the production of plastic. “Nurdles are small, and [animals] think they are food,” says Reznik. All kinds of plastic, he continues, “get ingested by birds, fish, and marine mammals that actually die from ingestion. They literally just fill up on plastic and aren’t getting any nutrition.”
Reznik explains that a bill regarding the “nurdle hurdle” is pending. “The legislation is about how to control nurdles at the source to make sure they’re not falling off [ships] when companies transport them.” Reznik, also an attorney, sued Caltrans in 1997 (and reached a settlement in 1999) to reduce urban-runoff pollution.
“There are a lot of things you can do to reduce urban runoff,” says Reznik. “You can put in grates that act as sieves in a normal storm drain. Even something as simple as cleaning out the storm drains…a lot of muck accumulates naturally, and Caltrans never cleaned them before our lawsuit.” As a result of the settlement, Caltrans must annually clean 15,000 storm drains and spend $2.5 million toward designing and implementing pollution-control devices.
Reznik likens a polluted environment to a sick patient. “First, you do triage: you stop the bleeding and the immediate threat. Once that’s done, you nurse them back to health, and when the patient is stabilized you can have an impact on their behavior so they don’t end up back in the hospital. You stop the smoking, drinking — the root cause of why they ended up in the hospital to begin with.”
One example of this is the city’s history of chronic sewer spills. “For over a five-year period, from 1995 to 2000, we were averaging a sewage spill a day,” says Reznik. “We sued the City and reached a settlement. It turned out that the City just wasn’t investing in the sewer infrastructure. We have a 3000-mile sewer system, and 1000 miles was beyond its life expectancy.”
Since the suit in 2000, the City has invested $250 million of the agreed-upon $1 billion to upgrade the sewer infrastructure. As a result, says Reznik, “Sewer spills have gone down over 80 percent.”
Beach Cleanup with San Diego Coastkeeper
Saturday, June 14
9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Buccaneer Beach (meet in parking lot near lifeguard tower off Pacific Street)
Info: 619-758-7743 or www.sdcoastkeeper.com