One of the low-hanging fruit we picked while I was running the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center
(SVP2Center) was to produce and give away strong canvas bags to our seminar attendees. In green ink (of course), the bags were printed with our name and logo and the words "Take Me Shopping"
Today, more and more stores offer cloth bags to their customers for a dollar or less. They still offer paper and plastic bags, but the later may soon be a relic of our no-deposit, no-return society because they are being banned in city after city. The amount of plastic trash bags littering streets, parks and stream channels has finally reached our cumulative YUK level, as we see pictures of the devastating impact these bags have on wildlife when they float on the wind or stormwater runoff into creeks, bays and oceans.
The pollution prevention aspect of store bags took about dozen years to take hold in a major way since we printed those first bags in 1996 for our conference attendees. In fact, almost every issue we discussed during my eight-year tenure as Executive Director of the SVP2 Center, was often a sort of prophetic effort that would be on our radar for action long before it reached general knowledge as environmental problem.
The SVP2Center was created within a consent decree which settled a Clean Water Act lawsuit filed by a coalition of Environmental NGO's, calling themselves CLEAN South Bay. The suit was filed against the three municipal treatment plants in San Jose, Sunnyvale and Palo Alto that discharged waste(d) water generated in thirteen cities in North Santa Clara County. All these discharges were in violation of national limits for heavy metals such as nickel, copper and cadmium being dumped into the circulation-starved South San Francisco Bay.
The largest discharger of nickel into the sewer system was a hard drive manufacturing facility owned by a company named Komag, whose CEO at the time was Bill Whitmer, who served as a board member of the SVP2Center for most of my tenure as Executive Director. The design of this Board was intended to have executives from industry and business, seated with government executives, both elected and appointed and the executive officers of the environmental NGO's. Our mission was to identify the sources of various pollutants and determine the extent that these directors' respective organizations, from the top down, could modify behavior and thereby prevent pollution from reaching local water resources.
The trilateral Board was evenly balanced, with at first three, then four members from each sector. The seed money of $375,000 was contributed from the enterprise funds of the San Jose -Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant and the San Jose City Council appointed all but the environmental members of the Board. In 2000, the Santa Clara Valley Water District committed $350,000 for pollution prevention out of the $15 million per year revenue from its new parcel tax called Clean, Safe Creeks and Natural Flood Protection Program. This allocation was split between three pollution prevention programs: the Santa Clara Valley Urban Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program, The County Pollution Prevention Committee and our NGO. With the Water District's commitment to providing $150,000 per year of funding to our organization came a bylaw change to split the appointing authority between the SJ Council and the District Board.
The Board always included one member from San Jose and the Water District. Trixie Johnson, of the San Jose Council and Stan Williams, CEO of the Water District were charter members of the Board, with Stan serving as the Board's first president. Since Stan and I could not be properly evaluating each others performance, I was offered the position of Executive Director contingent on my resigning from the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors. Not willing to lose my vestiture in CALPERS, I was offered a position on the staff of the District, which would be under contract to allow me to serve as XO of the SVP2Center, with my performance and salary to be controlled by the NGO Board.
In order to have the greatest influence on business and industry, it seemed prudent to have both the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Silicon Valley Manufacturer's Group represented on the Board to better disseminate practical pollution prevention initiatives to the broadest possible audience. These two organizations normally lobbied to prevent environmental regulations from impacting their members. If this new paradigm of ongoing mediations could avoid the long delays previously incurred through the litigation and appealed regulations, environmental protection could occur sooner and without the costly delays incurred during administrative hearings and court expenses.
Other industries, represented at various times on the Board, included Agilent Technologies, a spinoff of Hewlett Packard, the San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Gas and Electric, Pacific Bell, and IBM. IBM had learned the enormous value of pollution prevention after the $90 million cleanup costs from their leaking underground storage tanks which dumped solvents into the local groundwater basin in the late 1980's.
San Jose Water Company was also represented on the Board, having the largest corporate interest in protecting the quality of the water in the valley.
The Government sector directors included small cities like Milpitas and Santa Clara, and the County of Santa Clara. While the County had its own Pollution Prevention Committee, their program focused exclusively on business ("I'm from the Government and I'm here to help") Not willing to take the wrath of other departments within county government, the County P2 Committee refused to ever identify and try to prevent pollution generated by the County's own activities. Our organization had no such fear, although in the end, our successful efforts to move the County away from pesticide use resulted in a very oppositional director, who could not block this effort that was strongly resisted by his boss, the County Executive.
Another of our first initiatives was funded by the Integrated Waste Management Board in Sacramento. We received an $80,000 grant to identify ways and means to have oil filters removed from the solid waste stream and recycled at curbside in a safe and user-friendly manner. We ran a short-term pilot to determine the best container to issue to residents to place used oil filters in along side the used oil containers. This program was funded by a four cent fee on every quart of motor oil sold in the state. The goal was to remove the 2 million oil filters per year from the local solid waste stream that were previously going to landfills, some of which, unfortunately, were sited at the top of our watersheds.
I used to tell my Board that the most valuable product of our organization was the conversation that took place between the directors, and the resulting agreements to change the behavior which was causing pollution of our air, land or water. They may have agreed, but they generally felt funders were not going to contribute resources for us to just talk among ourselves. What the Board wanted was to increase our visibility in the community by holding some large events that could attract other decision-makers and the media. I was asked to organize such an event during my first year on the job.
The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) held an annual three-day event called the State of the Estuary Symposium. I volunteered for the conference planning committee, with a notion that we could help contribute reports on our work, which focused on the South Bay watersheds and efforts to protect and restore health to our end of the Bay. The committee chair did not have a vision of having separate segments devoted to each geographical portions of the estuary. Once I realized this, I resigned from the committee and decided to hold our own one-day conference in San Jose, calling it simply the State of the South Bay.
While I served on the Water Board, I was also appointed to the Board of the California WateReuse Association, that was staffed by a law firm, which included former state legislator John Knox.
One of the staff members, Terri Taylor, acted as the event coordinator. Having been impressed again and again with her extremely well-organized events, I contacted her to see if she would consider assisting me in planning and staffing our event. Once she agreed, she gave me a punch list of the details and sequence we would need to follow to craft a successful event.
An essential element for a good conference was lining up a keynote speaker that would attract both attendees and other speakers. My first choice was Felicia Marcus, who agreed immediately to be our keynote speaker. I had met Felicia Marcus at another recent event and was quite impressed with her brilliance and wit, which charmed her audience while encouraging people to do their best to protect the environment. Felicia Marcus had been recently appointed as Regional Director of USEPA by President Clinton after demonstrating her incredible negotiation skills in settling a 75-yr. war between Los Angeles and Inyo County over the Owens Valley water appropriations. As Chair of the LA Public Works Committee, appointed by then Mayor Bradley, she was able to craft an agreement that allowed Mono Lake to refill by replacing the diverted water from the lake's tributary streams with some of LA's recycled waste(d) water, with financial aide provided by the State of California.
Our first symposium was a great success, impressing my Board and Silicon Valley at large. This of course lead to the expectation of more of the same. Over the next seven years, we held numerous other conferences focusing on the Bay and protection of our drinking water supply and the County's streams from urban stormwater pollution. We also held seminars for elected decision-makers to help them understand the linkage between land use and pollution of the groundwater and water demand, in general. My favorite conference was on the subject of industrial water use efficiency and recycling, delighting in hearing local companies dueling over who could use the least amount of water per widget or successfully reuse their process water, rather than simply discharging ultrapure rinse water to the sewers.
In the later years of my tenure, the Board took a noticeable shift. Two of my strongest environmental directors, Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Craig Breon of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society were forced to shift their attention to new business of their own NGO's and left the Board.
Both the Water District and San Jose's directors shifted their Board appointments to elected members, with Rosemary Kamei replacing CEO Stan Williams, and Chuck Reed replacing the ESD Director, Carl Mosher.
Bill Whitmer, who had been an industrial director originally, had resigned when he left Komag just before it declared bankruptcy. At the suggestion of Director Trish Mulvey, another environmental activist from CLEAN South Bay, Bill Whitmer returned to the Board as an environmental director and took over as Board President. This drastically shifted the governance of the organization from being managed by the Executive Director to being managed by the Board President.
With the environmental sector of the Board in a weakened state, the other sectors started to avoid discussing some of the thornier issues like land use decisions in vulnerable parts of the watershed and the lack of progress in marketing recycled water. At a public meeting, I had a very negative exchange with SV Manufacturer's Group's XO, Carl Guardino, about the proposed development of the Coyote Valley. This fiasco was being lead by John Chambers of Cisco Systems and one of Guardino's bosses. Guardino told my Board President that if I continued opposing this development, he would remove his representative from my Board. This resulted in a Board directive to submit all correspondence to the Board for review before transmittal.
At this point, it became obvious that our mission to prevent pollution was being subverted by the same forces that had decimated the environment during the last forty years of the valley's rampant growth and industrial laissez faire.
I decided to take an extended medical leave to have a bilateral total hip replacement. I attempted to hire a consultant to work with the Board to follow San Francisco's lead on adopting the Precautionary Principle in place of the inferior approach of toxic risk management. The Board flatly rejected this proposal and let the organization exist with no staff during the next four months.During my recovery from surgery, while San Jose Water Company was replacing the water main and fire hydrants on my street, it dawned on me that this investor-owned water retailer had no interest in extending the recycled water system for use for firefighting or any other allowable uses, like landscape irrigation.
After trying to prevent the publication of an addendum report on the Obstacles to Water Recycling, San Jose Water Company offered their facilities for my Board to hold a clandestine meeting where they voted to not renew my employment contract and close down the organization.
Despite the fact that the current makeup of the Board precluded continuing our mission, it seemed inconceivable that Silicon Valley would lose two of its three pollution prevention programs in the same year. The County had disbanded its Pollution Prevention Committee, salvaging only the Green Business Program. Only the Urban Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program remained, which spent too much of its efforts hiring legal council to try to minimize the requirements mandated by orders of the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
When people asked why the Board shuttered the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center, I would sarcastically reply that there was no more pollution to prevent. More to the truth, these directors probably believed that if no one was discussing pollution, then hopefully the community would not be hearing about pollution and not think about it, and then not get in anyone's way by trying to prevent it.
My retirement gave me a new sense of freedom that I had not enjoyed for these past eight years. Without a Board of Directors, I no longer needed to push an entire Board into alignment before I could engage in a political action. About a month later, I wrote emails to the circulation managers of both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. Some telemarketer had signed up all the duplex units on my street to get free delivery of both daily papers to households that only spoke Spanish. All these papers sat in the driveways, getting soaked in the rain, and pulped by the car tires, and the pulp and ink were starting to run into the storm drain inlet at the corner and directly into Coyote Creek. Citing both litter laws with $1,000 fines per incident and possible citizen suits for violations of the Clean Water Act, both newspapers responded immediately and were picking up their papers within an hour.
After a few years of freedom from being chained to my laptop to produce and transmit all the documents necessary to operate the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center, I am again happily typing these stories into my blog. My hope is that some of this information will keep the spirit of pollution prevention alive in a more sustainable future.