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How To Build An Environmental ActivistRoger Butow Salem-News.com's 'Odd Man Out'
The first installment in a continuing series.
1998: In The Beginning...
(LAGUNA BEACH, Calif.) - In early 1998, my introduction into the world of environmental issues began with two seemingly unrelated subjects that eventually merged to both outrage me and set a match to my eco-zeal.
I had never been involved with, nor interested in any community problems let alone ecological ones. Never spoken at a public hearing, never written a letter to the editor either.
First, I became aware that a legendary waterman and close friend for almost 30 years had gone swimming at Aliso Creek Beach the morning after a 440,000 gallon sewage spill just upstream of the creek mouth (beach).
That day, due to inept emergency response procedures overnight, the spill was not professionally contained.
There were none of the official bright yellow and red warning signs posted at the final Point of Discharge (POD), at the public beach.
These signs forbid the public from entering the ocean because of the highly infectious or contagious nature of human waste viruses and pathogens in sewage.
Hepatitis A is one primary example of a virus commonly found.
Cal/EPA mandates that these signs should have been prominently placed up and down the coast for hundreds of yards from the creek mouth. They stay up, the public restrained, until the OC Health Department sampling and monitoring analysis indicates it’s safe to go back in.
A former Navy frogman and the co-founder of the LB Chapter of Surfrider, my friend, Briggs (Corky) Smith, would have stayed out had he known. Within 48 hours, he got very sick, developed boils and rashes, flu-like symptoms, etc. that lasted days. Once he discovered what he’d been exposed to, he filed litigation against the two culpable public agencies responsible: South Coast and Moulton-Niguel Water Districts.
Corky’s research revealed that they had a long history of chronic spills in the creek that were intentionally unpublicized and went mysteriously unpunished by Cal/EPA. He sensed complicity at enforcement local levels or at minimum a deaf ear and blind eye.
Corky eventually forced (or should I say embarrassed) them into upgrading their waste pipes and pump stations adjacent to the creek to avoid future spills. He was awarded attorney fees, although no punitive or compensatory personal damages were granted. Worse, Cal/EPA was controlled by then Governor Pete Wilson appointees.
Where a significant fine, known as an Assessed Civil Liability (ACL), should have been handed down at a public hearing, none was ever discussed, proposed or imposed. Everyone knows, whether it’s a speeding ticket or an avoidable health and safety violation, “Deterrence Drives Compliance.”
The second issue was the Aliso Creek Pier, which in the El Niño of 1997-98 had become damaged beyond repair, not for the first time either. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) never wanted this stubby concrete monstrosity to be built there in the first place.
Erected in 1971, this 572 foot long protrusion was plain ugly, it resembled a scud missile launch ramp and the toxic soup in Aliso Creek kept a constant drip feed of carcinogenic substances and high bacterial concentrations mixing in at the pier’s ocean terminus. Obviously, unknown to the public, any fish caught there were unhealthy for consumption.
It seemed crazy, our OC 5th District Supervisor Tom Wilson’s desire for a pork barrel project, to tear it down and spend $5+ million of taxpayer money to do so, throwing good money after bad while we were still recovering from our bankruptcy.
The enormous building that housed a fast food stand and bathrooms blocked a great viewing corridor, and the food stand was largely unused for 8 months or more per year.
Having skimmed that beach on a home-made board without a pier back in the early 60’s, I joined a small lobby group who successfully blocked the rebuild on both logistical and fiscal grounds.
Seeing that the other Supervisors wouldn’t go along, Wilson reversed his previous position and withdrew his plan.
First the pier was immediately demolished as a swimming and navigation hazard, then the left-over stub was only just recently removed in anticipation of new bathrooms and snack stand back in a corner of the parking lot. Drivers and beachgoers alike now have a classic So Cal look, an unobstructed historic scenic corridor.
These two efforts led me to form my own Non-Governmental Organization (NGO): The Clean Aliso Creek & Beach Association. I even registered it as a Fictitious Business Name with the County.
Being a smart-ass, in a “South Park” scatological lapse, I thought the shortened acronym CACA would get people’s notice in a humorous, yet dramatic way. It described what was in the creek perfectly.
In speech class, they always say first you get someone’s attention, THEN you educate them. CACA is Spanish slang for feces, but also a generic word for something repulsive.
And Aliso Creek was certainly that, so what the heck, a chuckle followed by a concerted effort to clean it up.
I even had a few hundred t-shirts printed up with the logo on the back at my own expense, sort of walking, anti-pollution billboards.
Prior articles on Salem-News.com from Roger Butow:
Launched in 2010, Odd Man Out is the creation of Roger von Bütow, a professional environmental consultant. Written exclusively for the Salem-News, it's intended as the next evolutionary step on the path of an eco-warrior.
Roger is a Southern California native who spent his formative years as a racial minority: A blonde-haired, blue-eyed surfer on the mean streets of the LA Harbor area. Running from gangs eventually trained him for his high school and collegiate track and cross-country career. Going to college part-time, disqualified for a student deferment, when his draft notice arrived in a fit of machisimo he joined the USMC in 1965, eventually attached to the 3rd Marine Air Wing.
Once honorably discharged, he resumed his college studies, majoring in philosophy. He dropped out in early 1972 when an opportunity to travel in Europe inexpensively for 6 months was too good to pass up. Upon returning, he and his former wife ended up in Laguna Beach, and though the marriage didn’t last his love of the place is in its 38th year.
Disgusted by chronic sewage spills and toxic urban runoff pollution that triggered constant beach closures in his area, he formed “Clean Water Now!” in 1998. Local surfers, skimmers and divers were pissed off, but there wasn’t a cohesive, unified and aggressive group response, zero leadership or activism facilitated by the Surfrider Foundation or Sierra Club regarding water quality impairment issues. You can write to Roger at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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