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An Environmentalist for All Seasons

Reshaping The Future

June 16, 1989|CONNIE KOENENN | Times Staff Writer

Felicia Marcus lives only a block from the Santa Monica Bay, yet she rarely gets over to see it. That's because she has been so busy trying to save it.

Marcus is an environmental activist and lawyer--neither especially remarkable on the issue-oriented Westside. But in addition to belonging to a myriad of environmental groups, she is a founder of Heal the Bay, the burgeoning volunteer organization that has successfully pressured the City of Los Angeles to stop dumping sewage sludge into the ocean.

As a key strategist in Heal the Bay's ongoing campaign, Marcus has spearheaded what is arguably one of the most effective grass-roots environmental campaigns of the last two decades.

"Felicia is extraordinarily committed," says Jan Chatten-Brown, environmental affairs assistant for Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who has known Marcus for eight years.

"I think she's had a significant role in Heal the Bay's success because of the way she has chosen to pursue issues, combing through the existing laws that are already on the books, persuading public officials to listen. She has given Heal the Bay credibility by taking careful, analytical positions on the various legal issues."

What Marcus emphasizes is an overview of systems. "Everything is connected--if you throw something away, it goes somewhere," she comments. "Who we are as a society depends on how we take care of things."

She is a particularly good example, say friends and associates, of the kind of person who got involved in environmental issues long before it was trendy, and who has done it the old-fashioned way: by learning what the Clean Water Act really says, the structure and vulnerabilities of storm drain and sewer systems, the real potentialities of recycling.

Board memberships give some indication of her depth of commitment: Coalition for Clean Air, Environmental Quality Board, League of Conservation Voters and National Estuary Program are only a few.

"I have breakfast meetings every day and evening meetings almost every night, and I read when I get home, mostly environmental studies and engineering reports," she said, adding ruefully, "I don't know when I last read a novel."

And all that is in her spare time--outside her work. Marcus, who lives in Venice, is director of litigation for Public Counsel, the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills bar associations' public-interest law firm--the nation's largest--which provides legal services to the poor in areas ranging from children's advocacy, immigration, civil rights and consumer issues, to housing discrimination and homelessness. "It makes a nice balance," says Marcus, of her ambitious two-part career. "I do get tired, running from one thing to another. . . . But I know hundreds of interesting people. It gives me a lot in return."

And although neglect of the environment may have been the rule up to now, Marcus thinks the tide is turning. "This is a great time to be an environmentalist," she proclaims with characteristic optimism. "We can fix this stuff!"

Sitting in her mid-Wilshire office--a sea of paper, posters, files, cardboard boxes and books--Marcus, 33, apologized for serving coffee in a non-biodegradable plastic foam cup ("I've been meaning to bring in some paper cups") and talked about the particular challenges of being an environmentalist. Her conversational style is disarming, spilling over with facts, figures, case studies and philosophic reflections.

"It's not a clear issue, like race discrimination, where there are rights and wrongs," she said. "It's a huge number of facts, and to be an effective advocate, you have to know what you're talking about."

Tedious Work

And despite a certain glamour to the idea of saving the air and water, the reality is tedious plugging. (One of Marcus' working memberships is the Sewer Limitation Ordinance Citizens Advisory Committee).

"You have to know how a recycling plant works and how a sewage treatment plants works," she said. "It can bury you in paper work and meetings."

Furthermore, until recently, environmentalism didn't seem a very urgent or especially compelling issue. While civil rights or the plight of the homeless might provide passionate conversation at a dinner party, the primary screening of sludge was hardly a topic to be introduced along with the coffee and dessert.

In fact, it wasn't a topic that Marcus herself focused on when she began thinking about a career. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley and graduated from Birmingham High School. "It was the end of the '60s activism," she recalls. "The students just behind us were more interested in sock hops. I was a current-affairs person. I read all the newspapers and Time and Newsweek."

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