24 Jan 2011

Are Riverkeepers and Waterkeepers doing well?

A reader asked about Riverkeepers and Waterkeepers and their role on efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries.

Any advice (pro or con) on these organizations?

As usual, you can comment anonymously :)


M. Garcia said...

Kind of amazing b/c I just read the book listed below and planned to blog on this very topic soon. How timely your query...

Advice: first, get and read a copy of The RiverKeepers by Cronin and Kennedy. It's a short read, very interesting. I must say that it was difficult to get through the chapter titled "Enforcement" because of all the things still going wrong that are discussed there.

Then, don't let the success and/or story of the Hudson RiverKeepers and others around NYC let you think that they're all that way. It very much depends on the person who is the designated Keeper--some want to do everything they can do, in the spirit of the originals, and some let politics get in the way or simply hide behind the politics to avoid the trouble spots. I was thinking to propose to start a Keeper org around the area that I now live, but have seen how difficult it can be to maintain any level of progress, let alone success. In the Chesapeake region, the Keeper orgs that I have read about are doing great work. In other places, not nearly so much because they are afraid to stand up to entrenched "powers that be."

Anonymous said...


Through my company, I have been on the receiving end of two SF Baykeeper suits which have made me very cynical about the purpose and motivation of this franchise.

Franchise? Yup, I think that's the best way to describe what RFK, Jr. has set-up. You get the model of legal action against polluters or alleged polluters, set-up your organization at your cost and keep the profits. What cut, if any, the original Riverkeeper gets is unknown.

These groups engage in greenmail. Typically, the file a claim under the Clean Water Act which has strict liability. That is, no defense of a CWA excursion - for example, it's a poor community that cannot afford to invest in infrastructure (or maybe even invest to the level that BK believes the community should invest)- is permitted. It all comes down to a negotiation of how much the defendant will pay BK to stay out of court. There are usually some minor payments as well to nearby environmental groups (known as Supplemental Environmental Programs or SEPs), as a sop to the Justice Department which will not sign off on a settlement without them. They also enable BK to greenwash what they are doing by hiding behind these contributions.

The settlement agreements my have some investment or other milestones in them, but typically they are nothing more than an acceleration of plans already in place and in some cases well on their way to implementation. I would note, however, that once the check from the defendant to BK clears the bank, BK is never heard from again.

M. Garcia said...

Like I suggested, results vary with location and personnel. I am not surprised at all at this story from the SF Bay area, which suggests to me a great deal of hiding behind the political complexity of the area. In the Bay area, there are so many government interests and jurisdictions that the BayKeeper can sneak in, file and settle a suit, and move on to the next issue. That there were grounds for a suit is one issue to be addressed, and that the BK was willing to settle out-of-court is another, and that there is no follow-up from either the BK (except with another suit) or the Cal EPA (with whom the BK is supposed to be working, as in the spirit of the original RiverKeepers) is still another issue. It looks like an abdication of responsibility all around, in the scenario described above.

Mr. Anonymous, I would like to hear from you directly, not to draw out you or your company but simply to make your story about the SF BayKeeper organization better known as a cautionary tale. You can click on my name at the top of this comment to find my Google profile, with links to my e-mail and blog somewhere down on the left side at that page. We'll keep it as anonymous as you need, as long as there are verifiable details to keep the story credible...

Deb Self, Executive Director said...

Hi Anonymous blogger and David,
As Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper, I would be very interested in talking with you further about any of our enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act. Our mission (as a completely independent 501(c) organization) is to ensure that the CWA is enforced and fully implemented to protect the San Francisco Bay. Particularly in our sewage spill lawsuits against the worst offenders in the Bay Area, we have seen tremendous capital improvements that are resulting in much lower spill rates. Some cities and districts have had vague, long-term plans for eventual repairs and upgrades, and we're pleased with the consent decrees that simply put those plans on a timeline that's enforceable. We do stay engaged in ensuring that those promises are kept, and have strong partnerships with many former defendants. Anonymous, we'd love to work with you more closely if you want to give us a call.

To clear up any misperceptions here, Baykeeper doesn't get the proceeds from any lawsuits, nor do we receive money (or guidance) from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Nor do we provide any funds to Waterkeeper Alliance.

Because we believe in what we do, and we find the results of our actions to be very beneficial to the Bay's ecosystem, we did found the international network called Waterkeeper Alliance. It's true that waterkeepers' approaches vary, but all stand up to polluters to enforce the CWA for their own waterbodies. If they don't, they lose their right to use the waterkeeper (or baykeeper, or riverkeeper, or coastkeeper) name.

You may not agree with our cause of protecting the Bay, or you may have other priorities for public spending than infrastructure repair and good storm water controls, but what we do is completely above board, honest and driven by a commitment to ensuring good government, filling the enforcement gaps left by defunded regulatory agencies.

Thanks for keeping the dialogue honest.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification on the relationship between BK and the other groups. That is useful.

I agree that BK employees care about the environment. Why I do not agree with is that BK's actions are contributing to a cleaner Bay. Agencies that have been the target of its suits have had specific plans with identifiable funding sources in place to address deficiencies. These plans were assembled because they governing board of said agencies directed staff to do so and to comply with NPDES permits issued by the Regional Board. For failure to do so will lead to mandatory minimum penalties that can be significant, particularly if chronic.

What BK legal actions do is require this local actions to switch their resources from addressing infrastructure and other needs to settling these nuisance suits and paying hefty legal fees, both their own and BK's. The net evironmental result is zero at best, since the agencies were going to make the improvements anyway, or negative as the agencies have less money available for them having had to pay it to BK and its affiliated legal counsel.

M. Garcia said...

Ms. Self, Anonymous has suggest (now twice) that suits brought by the SFBK were settled out-of-court. The goal of the course of action adopted by the WaterKeeper organizations, using the right of citizens to bring suit against polluters under the CWA and other statutes, is (was) to bring in a regulatory party who would collect any fines levied and use those monies to correct the polluter damages. One of my points in wanting to talk with Anonymous was to clarify the circumstances of these out-of-court settlements, which circumvent the process of bringing those fines back into the process of environmental remediation.

Can you account for the direction of any funds recovered from defendants in settlements out-of-court? If they are forwarded to the Cal EPA or other authority charged with enforcement of environmental quality, which is the point of CWA fines, can you document that the funds were used solely for remediation of the violations on which the suit was originally based? Can you demonstrate that funds from any such settlement, in lieu of court-determined penalties, have been used solely for the remediation of water quality in the SF Bay and, if at all possible, starting at and moving outward from the identified location(s) of the violations?

Not a Regular Girl said...
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