David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Gone Fishin' -- plantin' those grass roots in the water...
by David Bacon

SAN JOSE (6/10/95) - When Luis Sanchez was a boy in Guadalajara, every summer he and his family would go to a lake near the city and fish. He remembers it as a wonderful time, a time to be together with his family. "The lake was very clean," he remembers, "and of course we loved eating the fish."

Then Sanchez and his family came to the Bay Area. What a wonderful place they thought, especially the bay itself. At the Dumbarton Pier next to the bridge, or south at Coyote Point, the reflection of the setting sun would shine across the water after a long day at work. The rhythm of baiting the hook, pulling the rod back for the cast, watching the silvery line spin out from the reel, and the splash and ripple when the bait and sinker hit the water, all felt timeless.

The bay seemed big and beautiful and full of fish. The family did the same thing here they had done back in Mexico.

"When it started getting hot, that was the time to go fishing," Sanchez says. "We would go out to a pier, make a fire and stay overnight. It was a family thing. My mom and dad would come in the morning with breakfast, and even bring my grandparents." It was a reminder of home, a link between the new world and the world they had left behind.

But Luis Sanchez doesn't go fishing anymore. He's afraid to eat the fish.

Two years ago, Sanchez met Wendell Chin. Chin is one of a new wave of environmental organizers, who believe that organizing working class communities, especially communities of immigrants and people of color, is the key to cleaning up the environment. Chin told Sanchez about the chemicals found in fish he was catching, and the health consequences of eating them.

"I think I was fishing on the San Mateo pier," Sanchez recalls, "when Wendell came around passing out flyers and asking people to fill out survey forms. I didn't want to do it, but he insisted. That's the kind of guy he is - he's hard to put off. After a while, he called and asked if he could come over and talk. And that's how it all began, at least for me."

Today Sanchez is an activist himself, spending the time he can, after his job driving a bakery truck, helping to organize a unique group of bay fishermen and environmentalists - SAFER, or Southbay Anglers For Environmental Rights.

Sanchez' neighborhood doesn't seem a likely place to find an environmentalist. It's a noisy, rundown apartment complex off Tennyson Road in Hayward. Kids swoop through the parking lot, shouting and playing in four or five languages. Older folks lean over the metal railings running down the walkway in front of the second floor apartments, yelling at the kids one moment, and laughing with each other the next.

These are the neighbors Sanchez began inviting over to his house for meetings, together with friends he met at work. They're mostly immigrants too, who fish for fun and food as he did. Sanchez has not only talked to his neighbors. He's collected signatures on petitions. He's attended hearings. He's helped negotiate with polluters and government regulators. He's become a grassroots worker-expert on toxic chemicals in the bay.

Mike Belleveau, executive director of Citizens for a Better Environment, which started SAFER, calls Sanchez one of a new generation of environmental activists. "Developing that generation is extremely valuable and necessary," he says, "to building the environmental movement over the long term. Community empowerment is the key strategy in making the improvement of the environment last, and not become a memory of a few fleeting achievements."

Belleveau's confidence is more than a little unusual, as is CBE's vision of the future, which sees the movement growing, making further progress in cleaning up the environment. For the last few years, free-market economics and the philosophy of deregulation have grown powerful in Washington and Sacramento. Especially since last November's election, and the promise of the Contract on America to loosen restrictions on toxic pollution, the nation's largest mainstream environmental organizations have been on the defensive.

"Most of them are really in crisis," Belleveau says.

These differences - in visions of the future, in organizing strategy, in who they see as their constituency, and even in attitude toward the polluters themselves - mark a growing division in the environmental movement nationally.

CBE started in California in 1978, developing out of the student movement of the early 1970s. It was originally an offshoot of an organization from the Midwest, but gained its independence early on. For more than a decade it has concentrated on toxic pollution from industries surrounding San Francisco Bay.

SAFER is one of its most successful projects, evolving from a long history of efforts to stop bay pollution.

In the mid-1980s, CBE began to analyze the sources of the crisis affecting the bay's marine ecology. Greg Karras, a CBE scientist, points to many indicators of this crisis, which environmentalists believe have gone well beyond early warning signs. "What happens in weakened, polluted ecosystems like the bay is that basically the ecology runs amok," he declares. Chaos at the bottom of the food chain eventually works its way upward into the fish that Sanchez and other anglers find at the end of their lines.

At the very bottom, of the food chain and the bay, are dinoflagellates, single-celled algae that thrive in estuaries, and should be the dominant life form. That's where most of the food energy is created. Together with other microscopic animals, their populations are declining rapidly. Other species which thrive on them have also been decimated. Clams, mussels and oysters, common in Tomales Bay, for instance, just a few dozen miles north, used to support entire industries on San Francisco Bay. Now they are either absent entirely, or have been reduced by over 90%.

"Shellfish basically graze the bay," Karras explains. In the course of a single day, according to the US Geological Survey, the entire water of the bay moves through their filtration system. That means that contaminants in the water pass through it as well, and wind up being trapped there. Chief among these contaminants are heavy metals, especially copper and nickel. Their toxic effect wreaks havoc on marine populations.

One indication of the harm caused by heavy metals is the loss of the bay's shrimp industry. From an occupation supporting many boats and families, shrimp fishing now only supports two boats, one of them in the south bay. In 1984-5 there was an epidemic among the shrimp, and over 90% died off. The disappearance was connected to copper contamination. Shrimp normally molt, like many other animals, shedding their skin periodically. But when their environment becomes toxic, molting stops, because the old, hard shell is less permeable than a new, soft one. After a while, however, infections develop under the old shell, along with holes and deformities. That gives an epidemic a chance to develop.

"You see," Karras says, "our tools for measuring the concentration of chemicals like metals in the environment are very crude. But you can certainly see the impact of chemicals on living organisms. And my guess is that the impact is ten times greater than what we can actually see."

Based on that analysis, in 1988 CBE began a long-term effort to reduce heavy metal discharges. The campaign has focussed on sewage treatment plants, because all of the metal-containing water passes through them and into the bay. But CBE scientists were also well aware that the plants were just passing through metal pollution which had entered the sewers upstream. They projected an effort which would trace the metals to their source, and propose modifications of industrial processes to eliminate the discharges at the point where they were produced.

It's been a long campaign.

In 1990, the federal EPA and the State Water Board declared that discharges from the San Jose/Santa Clara and Palo Alto plants were a substantial source of copper, nickel, silver, selenium and cadmium in the bay. They designated the south bay a toxic hot spot in need of immediate action. Management of the sewage plants, however, fought efforts to get them to lower discharges. In 1987 they projected that heavy metal discharges would even increase, from over 4000 pounds of copper per year in 1988, for instance, to over 5000 pounds in 1995. According to Karras, south bay cities spent more than $2.6 million trying to win exemptions to clean water requirements.

CBE made common cause with other conservation groups concerned over the impact of chemicals on marine life and birds in the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wetlands refuge of its kind in the country. Their combined pressure produced a voluntary agreement with the Palo Alto plant, in which it agreed to cut metal discharges and to audit the water content of companies dumping metal into the sewers.

But in San Jose, the management of the plant, according to Karras, viewed industrial corporations as "clients," and tried to protect them. Eventually, it took a combination of a split in city government, with certain San Jose officials lining up against the plant's managers, and the filing of a suit, to win an agreement. In the end, San Jose agreed to target the largest industrial dischargers, responsible for 85% of the pollution, establish local limits on discharges, and provide technical and financial assistance for prevention measures by small businesses. The most controversial requirement was for auditing the polluting plants themselves, to identify the processes responsible for discharges, and to find alternatives to cut them, and save money and jobs at the same time.

In all, the campaign took seven years.

While CBE scientists and lawyers were fighting it out with sewage treatment plant managers and electronics companies, the organization began to ask itself a question which had been overlooked when the campaign started. "Who does toxic pollution of the bay affect the most directly, in terms of people?" Chin asks rhetorically. "It's the people who fish." Heavy metals pouring from the outflow pipes of the treatment plants combine with pesticides drifting down from the delta, and other industrial byproducts like PCBs and dioxins. Altogether, they become more and more concentrated further and further up the food chain. Eventually they reach the fish.

Chin points out that not all anglers are the same, nor do they catch the same fish. More affluent people go out on the bay in boats, looking for striped bass and sturgeon. Along the shore, on the piers and levees, the anglers are a lot poorer. "It's a very multi-racial, multi-lingual crowd," Chin observes. "I've heard eight languages spoken on the piers, and I'm sure there must be more." The fish are different too. Most people on the piers catch kingfish, jacksmelt, perch and sharks. Everyone wants the prized bass and sturgeon, but on the shore not many are caught.

CBE was already cooperating with grassroots groups organizing residents of poor communities in Richmond around air pollution from the Chevron refinery. Why not begin its own community organizing project, directed at the anglers?

This wasn't just an opportunistic question. "It was based on the reality that top-down, professional advocacy wasn't really working," Belleveau recalls. "In terms of the environment, really nothing good has happened at the Federal and state level since the beginning of the 1980s. The real energy is at the grassroots. We were already providing technical assistance to organized workers in unions, and to other community organizations, but we could see that often the victims of pollution, like the anglers, had no organizations. So we decided to begin organizing people ourselves."

CBE hired Chin, a graduate of the minority activist apprenticeship program of Oakland's Center for Third World Organizing, three years ago. Chin and other volunteers began going out to the piers, surveys in hand. They went where the fishermen go, who go where the fish go. They learned the tide tables, and got used to getting up early. After three months of intense activity, they had over 300 members. Among anglers generally, a majority of people eat the fish they catch. "But two thirds of the shore anglers are people of color, and among them, everyone eats fish," Chin says.

He also found that 20 years ago, the state Department of Health Services had issued a health warning about eating fish contaminated with mercury. But only one type of fish was mentioned in the warning - striped bass. Even at CalEPA, which took over DHS' responsibility for the health advisory, almost no one even knew about it. It's hard to blame them. The warning only existed on page 9 of the Fish and Game Handbook, in tiny print, in English. Anglers, of course, had almost universally never heard of it. Chin describes it as a good example of environmental racism. "Striped bass is the catch of white people, and CalEPA was only warning even them about the mercury. No one was testing the fish caught on the piers, much less telling anglers about the danger." The anger in Chin's voice is still hard to ignore.

SAFER's first campaign was over testing and warnings. At first state officials wouldn't meet with anglers. So SAFER took petitions into the neighborhoods where the anglers live, and found allies like the Alviso and Native American Health Centers. CalEPA officials were pressured into a meeting finally, but tried to blow it off, according to SAFER members who were present. Finally, anglers went to Sacramento, and testified before the Senate Rules Committee. They threatened to return to testify against the CalEPA budget.

That got attention. Suddenly, CalEPA was much more willing to talk.

Regulators finally reached an agreement with SAFER, and posted warnings in six languages on the biggest piers. The Regional Water Quality Control Board was given $173,000 for a testing program to identify the toxins in the fish.

Last December it released its report. As SAFER members had feared, the tests found excessive levels of PCBs, mercury, dioxins, pesticides and metals in a number of fish varieties. The highest concentrations were found in white croaker, or kingfish, routinely caught and eaten by anglers. The worst concentrations of toxins were at the Dumbarton Bridge, Fremont forebay (where Coyote Point is located) and the San Mateo Bridge in the south bay, and in 10 other locations to the north.

It's no wonder that Sanchez doesn't fish anymore. Most SAFER members don't.

"It's not fair to deprive people of such a basic food," Sanchez says. "It's true that pollution affects everybody, but poor people depend on the fish more. It's not always a luxury. And if we eat it, and we get sick, we have no health insurance. We have a big problem."

At the end of last year, CBE's two campaigns had reached fundamental questions. The campaign around the southbay sewage treatment plants had been a success. But it had taken seven years, and it hadn't yet touched the bay's biggest plant, located by the Bay Bridge, and operated by the East Bay Municipal Utilities District. SAFER had successfully organized anglers, and had forced the state to test fish and post warnings. "But testing and warnings are just Band-Aids, a means to an end," Chin says. "They don't make fish safe to eat, or clean up the bay."

So CBE took the next logical step - using community organizing to cut toxic pollution at the EBMUD plant. Last fall SAFER members changed the organization's name. The initials are still the same, but now they stand for San Francisco Bay Advocates For Environmental Rights. The change was significant. It meant that SAFER would expand north, and that it would begin reaching out to community residents concerned about pollution beyond the anglers themselves.

Taking on EBMUD also required more from SAFER members. They had to become better-educated about the sources and kinds of toxic pollution in the bay, and, in order to participate effectively, they had to agree on what they wanted EBMUD to do. So SAFER set up study meetings, at first for its own members. "The anglers are still the backbone," Chin says, "because they're the ones most at risk." But SAFER also organized educational meetings at places like the Oakland Independent Support Center, a homeless shelter, and in local schools. Over 100 people eventually participated.

When SAFER first went to EBMUD, the reaction was reminiscent of CalEPA's original disdain. EBMUD's general manager wouldn't even come to meetings with SAFER until community residents piled into a board meeting, and demanded the participation of the district's real decision-makers.

But there still wasn't much movement until Earth Day, a holiday many environmental activists feel has been coopted by corporations looking for a green image. But at a park in north Richmond, activists organized the first People of Color Earth Day. John Gioia, EBMUD board president, represents the district which includes Richmond. He came to the festival. In a panel discussion, SAFER activists called on him, challenging him to meet and talk about EBMUD toxic discharges. Three board members and the manager of the district's waste water program showed up at the next meeting with SAFER.

A week ago, SAFER achieved the same kind of agreement with EBMUD which took a seven-year war to win in San Jose. EBMUD agreed to set up a pollution prevention program, and to expand its monitoring of toxic chemicals, not just at the outflow pipes, but at the points where industrial wastes enter the sewage system. EBMUD promised a more aggressive approach to convincing companies to clean up, including making loans available for pollution-cutting measures. So that community residents aren't operating in the dark, the district is increasing the amount of information publicly available on the sources and kinds of toxic discharges, including reportback meetings and third-party assessments. These assessments are the same as the audits of the discharge-producing industrial processes which caused so much controversy in San Jose. "EBMUD won't use the word audits, and calls them assessments," Chin smiles, "but they're the same thing."

Auditing industry, getting inside the plants themselves, is the next challenge for the anglers and their allies. Reaching agreement with EBMUD gives SAFER access to information, leading to the identity of polluters and the amount and types of their discharges into the sewers. But the information is only useful as a basis to convince polluting companies to change the nature of their operations, and eliminate or drastically reduce toxic discharges. In San Jose and Palo Alto the process of moving upstream from the sewage treatment plants took seven years, relying primarily on scientific expertise and legal pressure. The challenge for SAFER is to use community pressure to accomplish the same end more quickly, and to maintain an organized community presence to maintain accountability, monitoring and enforcing agreements with industry.

Community audits don't just cut toxic discharges. They short-circuit the claim that environmental protection costs jobs. Audits give community environmental activists a chance to have input into the production process itself, recommending changes which may cost money at first, but which will eventually pay for themselves, and save jobs at the same time.

That's why many large employers oppose outside, or community, audits so vehemently. The process of community audits demands that factory managers share the power of decision-making. And despite all the hoopla in Silicon Valley about cooperation in making decisions between employers and workers, most big companies are control freaks at bottom.

As CBE moved upstream from the sewage treatment plants, it found itself faced with the same problem confronting the valley's labor organizers. Many of the largest companies contract out the dirtiest, least profitable, most labor-intensive parts of their operations to subcontractors. The big companies buy the finished parts and ensure low prices by making contractors compete against each other for the work. The contractors often wind up running sweatshops, in which there's little money for wages, and even less for machinery and process changes to cut pollution.

In negotiating the San Jose agreement, the city was told that some of these employers might close because of increased costs imposed by cleanup requirements. "There was jobs blackmail going on," according to Karras. The large companies buying the parts were unwilling to shoulder the costs of pollution-prevention systems. In the end, the city put $2 million into a capital fund to help small business develop cleaner processes.

CBE found many metal-plating shops were contributing a large percentage of the metal discharges because of the way in which parts were rinsed after being soaked in plating baths. So, together with a few supportive contractors, CBE activists designed process changes which could cut pollution by changing the way parts are rinsed. They designed new configurations that would save money for the businesses over time as well, through recovering metal that was being dumped into the sewer, saving on water use, and producing clean water rather than buying it from outside suppliers. The key changes were using more than one rinse bath, rinsing parts by spraying them above the baths, and recycling the rinse water after recovering metals from it.

Some companies were enthusiastic about implementing the new systems. In companies which allowed outside input, auditors recommended systems which would cut discharges drastically, and which would take from two to five years to pay for themselves. These techniques were adopted by Acteron Corp, Loral Space Systems and Watkins Johnson, among other shops. According to Karras, they reduced their discharges by an order of magnitude, to 10% or less of their former quantity. Watkins Johnson's closed loop system saves more than $100,000 per year, and achieved zero nickel discharge into the sewer system. Another audit noted that a similar system at Nashua Computer Products would cut nickel discharges by 99%, cost $1.1 million, and save $477,000 per year.

But others companies have not been willing to allow community audits, insisting on performing their own in-house. These include captive shops of big manufacturers, like Dyna-Craft, a division of National Semiconductor. According to Karras, companies which audited themselves were only willing to consider minor changes, which would cost less, pay for themselves quickly, and would cut discharges by a lesser amount.

"Unfortunately, this is consistent with the widely known time frames of business investment in Silicon Valley today," Karras notes. "Business tends to avoid investments that are not expected to produce returns in about two years or less. Short-term business economics not only cause pollution, but result in less long-term economic benefit. The idea that environmental and economic goals conflict is wrong, and divisive tactics that pit jobs against the environment can be disarmed by seeking the real conflict - in this case, short-sighted business decisions." In other words, as discharge limits get tighter, less investment in pollution-cutting measures endangers jobs instead of protecting them.

CBE's history of organizing poor people and direct action tactics, its alliances with labor unions, its criticism of big companies, and its challenge to corporate prerogatives over production and the workplace, is not unique. Its approach is shared with other regional, grassroots environmental groups, like the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego, the Louisville Environmental Network, the Southwest Network for Environmental Justice in New Mexico, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

CBE's track record, however, makes it unattractive for corporate largesse. Last year, National Semiconductor excluded it, along with eight other organizations, from eligibility for corporate donations through the Earthshare program. Earthshare is a coalition of 50 environmental organizations which raises funds by asking employees to make payroll contributions at work. Those contributions are usually matched by the employer, although not necessarily on a one-to-one basis. National Semiconductor excluded CBE and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, another organization which has criticized the company, from corporate contributions last year. This year the company reportedly told Earthshare that it would not allow employees to select the organizations for their own contributions. Some observers speculate that if National is successful with carving up the Earthshare list this year, other large electronics corporations may do so in its wake.

Roberta Silverstein at National Semiconductor confirmed that employees gave $41,000 through Earthshare last year, but would not confirm or deny that National was excluding certain environmental organizations from eligibility for contributions, whether through employees or its own matching funds. She speculated that some organizations are ineligible because they are "political," but could not say whether this was the reason for excluding CBE.

CBE's approach to environmental protection is a far cry from that taken by many national organizations. CBE's ideology sees industry as the main source of toxic pollution, and seeks the political power to enforce changes in industrial processes. Belleveau calls it "strategic intervention at the point of manufacturing." Change is often costly, eroding profits and corporate control. While one can hope for enlightened self-interest on the part of corporate managers, market forces protect profits first and foremost. "But even the most intractable industry can be dealt with using community empowerment," Belleveau says.

The strategy of community empowerment flows from the need to enforce environmental accountability on unwilling companies, whether they are Silicon Valley plating shops and electronics companies, or north bay oil refineries, another target of CBE campaigns. CBE feels that simply lobbying the government won't work. "Since the 1980s began, nothing good has happened at the federal and state levels," according to Belleveau. The accession of the Republicans to power in Congress has only reinforced that view. Organizing working-class communities to enforce change on unwilling companies is CBE's alternative.

But in Washington, some environmental organizations have accepted the argument that only market-based incentives can tempt large polluters into reducing the extent of their pollution, because the old regulatory structure has rendered U.S. industry uncompetitive, and threatened its profits.

The search for market-based incentives led a number of national organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, to endorse the North American Free Trade Agreement, on the premise that expanded trade would provide the incentive to clean up polluting industries in Mexico. The Environmental Defense Fund endorsed the deregulation of electric power generation, despite fears by many environmentalists that it will encourage the production of electricity with coal and other dirty fuels, because it believes that market forces will ensure clean energy.

Even the National Resources Defense Council endorsed Los Angeles' program under which polluting industries can buy "pollution credits" from companies with lower emissions. Mary Nichols, an NRDC attorney who endorsed the program, now works for the EPA in Washington.

Rather than building a grassroots constituency outside Washington, organizing campaigns to confront industry, these organizations operate inside the beltway. They compromise because they don't have the political force to fight the corporate and Republican onslaught and win.

"There's a real struggle within the environmental movement," concludes Belleveau, "like those in the civil right and labor movements. It's played itself out especially among organizations active on toxics issues. The movement for environmental justice is not properly represented nationally. We're very pragmatic, not dogmatic, and we want alliances with all kinds of organizations. We believe in the power of collective action. But we've been set back by the brokering and deals in Washington, by the old boy network.

"They don't see that the strength of the environmental movement is here at the grassroots."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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