Keepers Stir Attention on the Water
Environmental 'gadflies' are trying to enforce laws that hamstrung governments cannot
AS his 26-foot outboard bobs in the bay just off Hunter's Point here, Michael Herz spies what could be illegal sandblasting in a waterfront shipyard. As onshore workers scurry behind protective canvassing, Mr. Herz calls the Regional Water Quality Control Board on his wireless."Look's like they're at it again. Let's get somebody on this," he says. From San Francisco Bay to Long Island Sound, a burgeoning breed of waterway watchdogs is trying to enforce laws that local, state, and federal governments, for lack of funds and staff, can't. Called "Keepers," they come armed with personal outrage, a bloodhound's thirst for pursuit, and a protective instinct for the natural world. They are backed by increasing numbers of citizens angered by fouled beaches, bays, rivers, and sounds. "People are mad as heck because government isn't doing it," says Michael Herz, who two years ago appointed himself San Francisco's first BayKeeper, which is modeled after an eight-year-old project on the Hudson River. Herz is backed by three staffers and 300 volunteers who scout the bay from kayaks, planes, and helicopters. "Even if government funds were unlimited, private citizen watchdog groups would be indispensable to effective environmental protection," says James Strock, chief of California's Environmental Protection Agency. "This is a uniquely American concept, bottle-tested and ready for export." Mr. Herz "is an absolute pain in the neck, a constant irritant, and a gadfly, and that makes him absolutely wonderful," says William Travis, deputy director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Mr. Travis says his organization is hamstrung with a backlog of 100 cases pending while it is expected to patrol 1,000 miles of shoreline and 600 square miles of water with just two people. "He makes our life miserable at times, pushing us to be more aggressive," says Travis. "Every regulatory agency in the nation could benefit from a Mike Herz." For a feasibility study, Herz polled 50 people at 32 agencies asking if current enforcement was adequate. All 50 responses registered "no" and welcomed a citizen counterpart. He modeled his role after John Cronin, the Hudson RiverKeeper, who started chasing polluters eight years ago with support from the Hudson River Fisherman's Association. "People realize immediately the eminent sense of having such eyes and ears on the river," says Mr. Cronin. "What they are amazed to find out is that no one else is yet doing it." In his first year, Cronin helped expose Exxon tankers for unloading toxins into the river and stealing fresh water for sale to islands in the Caribbean. Since then, over 40 major settlements have drawn damages from counties, cities, and businesses. Based on studies of oxygen levels in Long Island Sound, SoundKeeper Terry Backer has brought a case to the state court of New York for raising standards on nitrogen in legal effluents discharged by New York city's 14 treatment plants. Pushed by these successes, the keeper ranks have grown: from the Delaware River to Puget Sound last year, from Long Island Sound to Casco Bay last month. Backed as nonprofit organizations by private foundations, donations, and occasionally with money from case settlements, their budgets range from about $150,000 to $350,000. "There is local pressure to form these all over the country," says Herz, who has had 30 inquiries in the past two years from organizations wishing to copy the idea. Also mimicking the Cronin operation, the Casco BayKeeper will be aligned with law students at local universities who will help with litigation. "The movement is not concentrated in any area, and it's all grass roots," Herz says. The idea behind these efforts is to fill the void left by cutbacks to state, local, and federal agencies which are already vastly understaffed in their wars against polluters. Provisions in key environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund law allow citizens to file suit if government does not. "The agencies that do exist are well intentioned but woefully understaffed and underfunded to do any serious monitoring," says Tim Eichenberg, an attorney and board member of Friends of Casco Bay. No permanent steward or advocate for the bay exists, he says, and the town even lost its harbormaster by dint of recent funding cuts. Cutbacks to such environmental agencies during the Reagan administration fueled the rise of the new, beneficent vigilantes, observers say. "Without taking away the legal protections that are there, [Reagan] defunded the agencies that enforce them so they became old bulldogs with no teeth," says Herz. The keepers efforts go beyond pointing out the inadequacies of agencies. In Puget Sound, where Elliot Bay was recently rated one of the most polluted in the country and Tacoma Bay was listed as one of the Superfund's largest recipients, SoundKeeper Ken Mozer says his efforts are helping to also spotlight the inadequacies in specific laws. "This is still the lawless West in some regards," he says. "We're identifying problems that have no other way of being addressed." "Citizens own the water, and it's up to us to realize they are not just a big playground, they are part of an ecosystem," says Long Island SoundKeeper Backer. Back on his boat, Herz says San Francisco Bay is not so much endangered by a single catastrophe as "dying from 1,000 cuts." "It's easy for the public to jump on the bandwagon for a big spill like the Exxon Valdez," he says. "But we are more endangered by the collective impact of several things - sewage, power plants, destroyed wetlands."
One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.