Dirty Water
California Lawyer

Dirty Water

One Man's Fight to Clean Up One of the World's Most Polluted Bays

December 2010

Dirty Water: One Man’s Fight to Clean Up One of the World’s
Most Polluted Bays
by Bill Sharpsteen University of California Press, 288 pages,
$27.50, hardcover




Stories on water policy typically generate glazed eyes and neural vapor lock. They are important, certainly, particularly in California - but that does not make them easy to read.

Any effort to write on sewage, then, would seem doubly doomed. That's why Bill Sharpsteen, the author of Dirty Water deserves some props. Not only does he meticulously lay out the story of efforts to clean up Santa Monica Bay - once described as the most DDT - and PCB-laden estuary on the planet-but he does it in a compelling style. Sharpsteen succeeds largely because he tells the story of the people involved in the fight rather than becoming bogged down in the legal and biological minutiae intrinsic to water pollution issues. (Not that there aren't enough descriptions of gunk and crud to drive home the magnitude of the problem: The vivid description of sludge lying at the bottom of the bay like a mat of "black mayonnaise" is appropriately stomach-flipping.)

Both the primary hero and the villain of the book are limned in stark contrast. Sharpsteen credits Howard Bennett, a Culver City high school teacher, with bringing the egregious contamination of the bay to the public's attention. Bennett swam regularly in the bay, and sometimes he wondered why the water tasted funny. One day in the mid-1980s, a fisherman warned him that the bay was polluted. Bennett investigated and found that the City of Los Angeles was blithely dumping millions of gallons of partially treated sewage five miles offshore, creating a vast blighted zone devoid of most species of marine life. Bennett soon found that the city was seeking a waiver to the Clean Water Act from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would allow the practice to continue. Outraged, he launched a grassroots campaign aimed at getting the city to back down and instead construct a modern sewage treatment facility.

Bennett's nemesis was Willard Bascom, the head of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (or SCCWRP, pronounced squirp). Though SCCWRP's researchers produced valuable scientific data, the organization received most of its funding from the sewage dischargers. According to Sharpsteen, Bascom was personally committed to the status quo, and saw approval of the waiver as one of his most pressing duties. He outraged his own scientific staff by cherry-picking data, changing inflammatory words to neutral ones, and describing the largely untreated sewage spewing into the bay as "nutrients" that sustained some of the local fish.

A rich cast of environmental activists, disenchanted scientists, pols, whistleblowers, and lawyers buttress Sharpsteen's yarn, making for a fascinating read. It's not giving away too much to note the ambiguous ending: The City of Los Angeles ultimately acceded to public and legal pressure and built a new treatment plant; marine life seems to be slowly reclaiming the dead zone. But the victory has been partial at best. Though Santa Monica Bay's primary "end-point" pollution source has been addressed, street and port run-off and aerially deposited contaminants remain - and may be worsening. The fight to save the bay continues, albeit on new fronts.

Glen Martin is an environmental writer based in Santa Rosa.

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