Braving Stormy Weather to Find the Bay’s Industrial Polluters

Jan 2, 2013
Deb Self
by Deb Self

For most people, a rainy forecast means carrying an umbrella. But Baykeeper is San Francisco Bay’s pollution watchdog, and for us, rain is a call to action. This year, Baykeeper staff members and our new team of volunteer pollution investigators are braving winter storms to find the Bay’s industrial polluters.

During the rainy season, pollution in San Francisco Bay is at its highest. That’s because most of the pollution that goes into the Bay simply washes off of the land into the water. One of the single biggest sources of this pollution is Bay Area industry. Our region has more than 1,300 industrial sites, including small manufacturers, metal scrap yards, refineries, shipping terminals and many others.

As big rainstorms hit, we head out to collect samples of storm water runoff from industrial facilities around the Bay Area, gathering scientific evidence to track down the most worrisome sources of pollution.

While the federal Clean Water Act has effectively restricted the direct toxic discharges industry used to pump directly into the Bay, now there’s a threat from a more chronic kind of pollution. Most industrial sites have large outdoor areas where work can take place and toxic dust or liquids may build up. Then forklifts and trucks that drive through the outdoor areas may leak fluids or pick up toxic substances on their tires and spread them around.

In a storm, all this pollution gets carried by rainwater off the site into the nearest street, and down a storm drain. From there, with no filtering or treatment, the contaminated water gushes into creeks and sloughs that flow into the Bay, or directly into the Bay itself. The exception is San Francisco, where the storm drains lead to the sewage treatment plant; everywhere else, what goes into the gutter goes into the Bay.

Leading up to the big November rains, Baykeeper volunteer pollution investigators surveyed 45 industrial sites we had previously identified as likely polluters. Based on the investigators’ reports, we selected sites where pollution seemed most probable, and where there was also an access point to collect runoff samples.

When rain started falling, Baykeeper staff members and volunteers went to the perimeter of the selected industrial facilities with laboratory-grade plastic bottles to fill with rainwater running off the site. If we succeeded in collecting a sample of the polluted runoff water, we took the bottles to a certified lab for testing.

Industrial runoff pollutants include heavy metals like copper, mercury, zinc, and lead, as well as petrochemicals. These toxic substances place a heavy burden on Bay wildlife. For example, salmon exposed to copper pollution lose their ability to evade predators and find their spawning streams. High concentrations of nickel are lethal to shorebirds.

This pollution is illegal under the Clean Water Act. But underfunded state agencies with responsibility to enforce the law rarely require industrial facilities to control their polluted runoff. So Baykeeper steps in and files Clean Water Act citizen lawsuits. Our victories lead to legally-binding agreements that require industrial facilities to install pollution controls to keep toxic contamination out of San Francisco Bay. The pollution controls can range from the company doing a better job of sweeping up outdoor areas to installing on-site wastewater treatment.

Within the past 15 months, Baykeeper has won pollution cleanup at seven polluting industrial facilities, including the West Coast’s largest drydock, BAE Systems Ship Repair in San Francisco.

The evidence we gather on rainy days—and rainy nights—will lead to a cleaner and healthier San Francisco Bay in the future.

Baykeeper Associate Attorney Andrea Kopecky collects a sample of storm water running off a Bay Area industrial site. The water will be chemically tested to discover whether it contains toxic substances that are polluting San Francisco Bay.

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