Friendly Polluters

by Carolyn Chase


Mission Bay is an impaired water body. The main pollutant of concern, for which we have reported data, is bacteria. Mission Bay currently doesn't meet - and hasn't met for some time - the basic "fishable/swimmable" standards of the Clean Water Act, due to unsafe levels of bacteria.

The Clean Water Act's primary "point source" pollution control program is the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Under the Clean Water Act, all identified dischargers of significant amounts of pollution into receiving waters of the United States require a permit. NPDES permits may contain many different types of criteria on a given pollutant (numeric and/or narrative standards), but the goal is to ensure that water quality standards are met, all beneficial uses are protected, and the water quality is not degraded.

SeaWorld is the largest point source discharger of wastewater containing bacteria into Mission Bay. Despite the fact that in 1995 SeaWorld told the permitting agency, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, that treatment facilities were complete and would allow them to achieve full compliance with its permit, violations have continued in every year since then.

Explanations of the violations have included: that they have been "updating their facilities;" had "upset" conditions; or the result of "an anomaly." Problem is, no matter the reason, these were violations of the permit and the Clean Water Act. Ongoing violations are not, by definition, anomalies. SeaWorld's defense, "But 98 percent of the time we are in compliance," was debunked by Bruce Reznik of San Diego BayKeeper, who likened that to the robber who told the judge, "But your honor, I didn't rob anyone 98 percent of the time!"

The recent Grand Jury Report on Mission Bay Park, entitled "The Truth about False Bay," reported a range of management problems and noted the following about SeaWorld: "SeaWorld's potential to impact the water quality in the park is obvious. SeaWorld is responsible for its own water quality monitoring and reporting to the State Regional Water Quality Board. SeaWorld reported that bacterial indicators exceeded limits for the months of March, June, July, August and September of 1999. SeaWorld prepared a report of wastewater discharge for their permit reissue. This report was due in September 1999 but was not submitted until January 2000."

The fact that Mission Bay is an impaired water body makes it all the more critical that SeaWorld comply with their permits without regular "anomalies." In order to ensure that SeaWorld's wastewater is not causing or contributing to the high levels of bacteria in Mission Bay, the environmental community recently requested additional requirements for SeaWorld's NPDES permit.

On April 12, 2000, the RWQCB heard comments from SeaWorld and the following environmental organizations: Surfers Tired of Pollution (S.T.O.P.), San Diego County Chapter of the Sierra Club, San Diego BayKeeper and the San Diego Chapter of Surfrider Foundation. As a result of the environmental organizations' participation and the hard work of the RWQCB staff, the following additional requirements were added:

  • Weekly monitoring of fecal coliform and enterococcus
  • Chronic toxicity monitoring
  • Semiannual monitoring of halomethanes
  • Monthly temperature monitoring
  • More stringent silver limits
  • Study to assess any potential eutrophic effects on receiving water
  • Elimination of the loophole allowing exceedences to receiving water
    bacteria limits

In the meantime, on the PR front, SeaWorld claims to be an environmental leader.

In a recent brochure titled "In Step with San Diegans," SeaWorld states that it "exceeds all local, state and federal regulations for water quality." But in the real world of water quality, an "exceedence" is not a good thing. It means that the established water quality standards were violated. While this may not be what they meant, for once, SeaWorld's PR department got it right.

William A. Davis, Executive Vice President SeaWorld San Diego, has hit the boards to promote their development plans for the park. Davis has defended SeaWorld's water quality practices with a clumsy attempt to blame the rest of the watershed's residents:

"So the people in Clairemont and the people in University City or wherever that 61 square miles are, that's all ending up in Mission Bay. We're 189 acres of that 61 square miles. We're taking approximately 3.5 million gallons of water per day out of Mission Bay through two major intake valves. We use that water, we clean that water, and when it goes back it's cleaner than when we took it out."

This is a classic misuse of comparatives in an attempt to defend an indefensible position. City runoff is a likely contributor, but at 3.5 million gallons per day pumping through their small acreage, SeaWorld's flow dwarfs the volume of polluted run-off from the rest of watershed. SeaWorld's specialized usage is, after all, circulating vast amounts of water continuously to remove concentrated marine critter waste. The pollutant levels of the receiving waters should most definitively not be in any way the standard for their discharges. The "your water is dirtier than ours," defense must be rejected out-of-hand. The standard is - and should always have been - is the discharged water swimmable and fishable? Or does SeaWorld management just consider Mission Bay a mere extension of their aquaria waste system - which is clearly what it has become.

SeaWorld has also invested in becoming a partner in the "Think Blue" campaign, funded in-the-main by a number of well-meaning major polluters and directed toward educating us that pollution is mostly our individual fault. You can see Davis in ads on Channel 10, promoting all the actions that Sea World is currently doing to manage their polluted runoff. But of course, there's not one mention of their violations of their Clean Water Act permit, the impaired state of Mission Bay, or their questioning of the RWQCB's authority to apply receiving water limitations to SeaWorld's effluent.

Environmentalist do support the valid educational efforts of the "Think Blue" campaign. However, it is questionable that it should be used as such a blatant vehicle to sell a limited and biased view of corporate practices in a public park. Those practices, while laudable, fall short of where they need to be. This is misleading the public and promoting a private agenda under the guise of public education.

Rather than going the PR route, Davis should consider complying with his permit conditions. The City Council should wait to take any action for new development impacts on their leasehold until SeaWorld has met their pollution permit conditions regularly for a period of at least twelve months. Then there could be a record of environmental accomplishment instead of one of environmental PR.