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Heal the Bay Blog

Author: Rita Kampalath

Dec. 7, 2016 — The new appointee for EPA administrator raises some red flags for Heal the Bay’s work, says science and policy director Dr. Rita Kampalath.


UPDATE 2/1/17: Today members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works boycotted the vote to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A vote will be rescheduled in the coming days. Add your voice to this petition now urging the U.S. Senate Committee to reject Pruitt’s nomination. Tell our elected officials to maintain strong EPA funding for programs that affect our Bays nationwide.


Speaking personally, there’s been little to be excited about as news of the presidential transition and new administration appointees has trickled out the past few weeks. But I’ll admit that the optimist in me still held on to a little spark of hope about the ultimate choice for EPA Administrator.

As the person tasked with enforcing our Clean Water and Clean Air acts, the chief sets the tone and priorities for the administration, whose work dovetails with many of our issues on a daily basis. The EPA responds both to immediate crises like the Flint drinking-water crisis, as well as long-term challenges like climate change.

Maybe I wouldn’t be thrilled by the choice, but the appointee would be someone who at the very least believed in the mission of the agency, if not the specific strategies we would prefer. Unfortunately, that spark was extinguished with today’s news of the pick of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head up the nation’s top environmental agency.

While we didn’t get Scylla it sure seems that we’re stuck with Charybdis. He fought to limit the scope of the Clean Water Rule (Waters of the United States Rule), which sought to bring more waterbodies under the protection of the Clean Water Act. The CWA is the federal regulation that has underpinned Heal the Bay’s major policy gains, such as fighting for strict pollution limits on the L.A. River. Pruitt who has close ties to oil and gas companies, also has been one of the leaders in the fight against environmental regulations that would impact energy and producers. Pruitt is part of a coalition of state attorneys general suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power companies.

With this pick, it’s clear that Heal the Bay’s science and policy staff will have to be more vigilant than ever to ensure that on a local level our natural resources are protected.  Stay tuned.


UPDATE 2/1/17: Today members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works boycotted the vote to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A vote will be rescheduled in the coming days. Add your voice to this petition now urging the U.S. Senate Committee to reject Pruitt’s nomination. Tell our elected officials to maintain strong EPA funding for programs that affect our Bays nationwide.



Nov. 21, 2016 — Amid all the uncertainty in Washington D.C., Heal the Bay promises to keep a sharp eye on what a new administration means for our local environment, writes Dr. Rita Kampalath, Heal the Bay’s science and policy director.


UPDATE 2/1/17: Today members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works boycotted the vote to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A vote will be rescheduled in the coming days. Add your voice to this petition now urging the U.S. Senate Committee to reject Pruitt’s nomination. Tell our elected officials to maintain strong EPA funding for programs that affect our Bays nationwide.


While we’re still celebrating the tremendous wins that the California environment scored in the recent elections, we have been hearing voices of concerns from many Heal the Bay supporters about changes afoot on the national level. After months of campaign rhetoric, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the real-world policies and appointments rolling out from a new leader in the White House.

Given our 31-year role as a staunch defender of our local seas and watersheds, we’ve been paying particular attention to discussions about such topics as the purpose of the EPA and ongoing climate change policy. In my role of heading policy for an organization always guided by the best science, I’ve frankly been dismayed to hear opinions expressed by the new administration on some issues related to our core work. These initial reactions range from mildly concerning to truly alarming, given that some pronouncements are simply at odds with established scientific consensus. As a result, we’re going to be watching what goes on at the federal level closer than ever.

Below are topics our policy team will be keeping an eye on in the coming months as the new administration formalizes its course of action:

Climate change: Despite the consensus of the vast majority of the scientific community that man-made climate change is very real, the issue remains a contentious topic for federal legislators, and a key policy area to watch going forward. The choice of a well-known climate change skeptic as leader of the EPA transition team has been disheartening, especially as Myron Ebell is also mentioned as potentially heading up the agency long-term.

The past few years have seen tremendous progress in the U.S. accepting our responsibility to take action for warming temperatures, highlighted by our ratification of the Paris Agreement last year. The incoming administration has expressed a clear stance on withdrawing the U.S. from this landmark agreement. This is obviously a global issue to be grappled with, but we have been working on climate resiliency with local municipalities for years. Rising seas, erosion, and flooding are very real possibilities on our shorelines in the not-too-distant future. But to fix the problem, we need to admit there is a problem.

Energy: Strongly tied to U.S. actions on climate change are our energy policies in general, which may have additional impacts on natural resources and air and water pollution. Here on the California coast in particular, we’ll be watching out for any policies or actions that may open up our lands, in particular those offshore, to additional oil drilling and fracking. We’ll also look out for actions on recently adopted or still in the works policies such as the Clean Power Plan and mercury standards that seek to tighten standards on a range of air and water pollutants. These obviously have enormous potential impacts on the health of our local waterways and neighborhoods.

Clean Water Act: Last year, the EPA issued the Clean Water Rule (“Waters of the U.S.” rule), which clarified the definition of waters that are protected by the Clean Water Act. Thankfully, this definition recognizes the interconnectedness of waterbodies, and the impact that upstream waterbodies can have on navigable waters, and thus formalized protections for precious water resources such as certain wetlands and tributaries that previously may have been subject to debate. The new administration has made it clear that this rule will be a prime target for elimination.

Funding: Although it may be difficult to abolish entire agencies or programs completely, the power of the purse is no joke. We will be watching to see how funding of agencies, research, and grant programs related to the environment changes under the new administration. Certainly, the billion-dollar restoration plan of the L.A. River put forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will now be viewed through a new prism, leaving lingering questions about how the long-gestating project will now move forward.

New regulations: While we’re lucky to live in a state that is pretty consistently a leader in the nation on environmental laws, we’ll be vigilant for any federal regulations put forward that may seek to preempt state laws. While this approach may be beneficial in some instances where the federal law is more protective or establishes consistency among states, we’ll be wary of any attempts to limit the protections we as a state can ensure for our treasured natural resources.

Infrastructure spending: Given the current degraded state of our infrastructure, Heal the Bay supports infrastructure spending and improvements. At the same time, we cannot set up a zero sum game between infrastructure and climate change as the new administration’s 100-day plan suggests. And infrastructure spending must be invested in projects that lead to more sustainable communities and incorporate best management practices in terms of energy and water use.

Heal the Bay was founded on the belief that, like the rights to free speech, equal treatment, to practice whatever religion you choose, and to love whomever you choose, we have a right to an environment that doesn’t pose a risk to our health and well-being. These rights and values are what make America great now! While we, as always, are rooting wholeheartedly for the success and forward progress of our nation, we believe that erosion of any of these rights is absolutely incompatible with any definition of success, and certainly any definition of progress.

Feeling like you want to take action in these uncertain times? We’ve got dozens of volunteer opportunities for you and your family.



July 22, 2016 — Science and policy director Rita Kampalath gets to the bottom of the massive sewage spill that made a mess of the L.A. River.

Perfect blue sky, 95 degrees outside … and the beaches are closed??

After years of hard work, Heal the Bay is thankful that the days of sewage fouling our waterways are largely behind us. But we got a bad flashback to the old days this week when an estimated 1.75 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the L.A. River late Monday and early Tuesday. The spill itself was estimated at 2.5 million gallons, roughly 800,000 gallons of which were captured before they reached the river. A rupture in an aging sewer pipe in the Boyle Heights area had been identified as the likely culprit.

We’ve heard a lot about our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and L.A. isn’t immune to these issues. But the City of Los Angeles’ decision to invest in sewer upgrades over the past few years has largely paid off.

An estimated investment of $200M per year has resulted in an 85% reduction of sanitary sewer overflows (i.e., sewage spills) since 2000. But when popular shorelines in Long Beach and Seal Beach are closed for days because of a spill, you know a major amount of waste must have been discharged and something had seriously gone wrong.

I wanted to find out more about what could have caused such a catastrophic failure of a major sewer line and what was being done to fix it. So Thursday morning, the City of L.A. Bureau of Sanitation staff graciously offered to give me an up-close-and-personal view of the rupture area.

Site of the bridge demolitionWe pulled up to the site, located where active construction is already going on – the highly publicized demolition of the 6th Street Bridge in Boyle Heights. The immediate rupture area was now cleared of the heavy machinery ever-present during the months-long razing of the iconic bridge, but I could still hear demolition crews working nearby. I couldn’t help but wonder if all this heavy construction nearby might have played a role in the failure of the sewer line.

As we surveyed the damage, City staff explained that the spill was detected following sinkholes that had recently formed in the road, roughly at the intersection of Mission Road and 6th Street. These collapses and the associated debris ruptured and then clogged the massive 60-inch trunk line known as the North Outfall Sewer (NOS), causing a back-up of waste, which, given the volume flowing through the enormous pipe, quickly and unfortunately made it into the river.

With crews working around the clock, a diversion was ultimately put into place to direct sewage around the damaged pipe. Cleanup quickly commenced and is still ongoing.

In the early days after a troubling incident like this, we have at least as many questions as answers. We are urging the City to continue investigating the causes and impacts of the spill. What conditions underground led to the sinkholes? Did the months of construction and associated heavy machinery and demolition play a role? What safeguards were put into place to protect the relatively shallow sewer lines during the demolition? The top of the NOS is only 16 feet below ground.

What sort of controls will be put into place to avoid future spills along our key waterways? And, who will be held accountable for this spill? It is also a keen reminder that we need to continue to invest in our aging infrastructure to avoid incidents like this in the future.

When our region’s famously perfect weather starts to veer towards scorching, people want to take advantage of another enviable asset – our recreational waters. But they need to know a day at the beach isn’t going to make them sick.

Barry Berggren, Rita Kampalath, Brian McCormick, and Adel Hagekhalil
Left to right: Barry Berggren, Rita Kampalath, Brian McCormick, and Adel Hagekhalil

So we commend and thank the authorities in Long Beach and Orange County for making the wise decision to prioritize public health and close the beaches as soon as news of the sewage spill came out. But it’s a shame that on this hot weekend some of our best avenues for relief may be out of commission. As a watchdog of our local waterways, Heal the Bay will continue to track the investigation and follow-up on this massive spill, advocating for appropriate accountability measures and preventative actions to protect our vital rivers and beaches.

Spills are fortunately rare occurrences on the river. But chronic bacterial pollution still plagues some of its popular recreational zones. That’s not good news for the increasing number of people who are now kayaking, swimming and angling in its waters.

My colleague Katherine Pease and her team have been collecting and analyzing water samples along the river for harmful bacteria. Next week she will release the results of her study. Let’s just say that if you care about public health, you will be very interested in its findings. Stay tuned.