Coastal — Terry Tamminen got an early morning phone tip about raw sewage floating in Ballona Creek and swung into action. Grabbing the tools of his trade--a video camera, still camera, cellular phone and sampler jars--he jumped into his "Baykeeper Mobile" and headed to the scene.
Once he arrived, tipster Skip Gralapp pointed Tamminen toward the concrete-lined creek, which runs next to his lumber yard, and said the water had been emitting a foul odor for several weeks. Gralapp added that he had reported it to officials in Culver City and Los Angeles, but that they "fought over whose responsibility it was to look into it."
Pulling out his video camera, Tamminen, 41, began shooting tape of raw sewage, plastic foam cups and oil slicks slowly flowing downstream toward the bay.
Tamminen is the Santa Monica Baykeeper, and this is his job. He essentially appointed himself to the post, rounded up some backing from an environmental foundation, donated his own boat and car to the cause and--about a month ago--started doing business as a water watchdog.
"We are sort of your one-stop shopping center for fighting pollution in the Santa Monica Bay," Tamminen said. "We will follow up on every tip that we get."
Tamminen lives on the water--on a boat in Marina del Rey--and said he takes to land, sea and air, acting as "field reconnaissance man" for government agencies and environmental groups to fill a void in the way the Santa Monica Bay is monitored. In addition to checking out complaints, he routinely patrols the bay and the coast, searching for signs of illegal dumping, commercial fishing or grading, and collects evidence to present to the appropriate agencies.
It is a second career of sorts. Tamminen has managed a real estate company, developed an international private security service and has owned and run a recreational services business. All the while, however, he has stayed close to the water, sailing, boating and diving at every opportunity.
"I have had a career and made money," he said. "But that doesn't motivate me anymore."
In his new crusade, Tamminen has affiliated himself with some significant players in the environmental movement. Santa Monica Baykeeper--so far, there's little more to the organization than Tamminen himself--is one of nine members of the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers. The alliance was founded in 1983 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and New York activist John Cronin, whose bailiwick is the Hudson River.
Cronin, associate director of the National Alliance, gained nationwide attention when he discovered Exxon Corp. oil tankers emptying their toxin-filled ballast into the Hudson River in 1983. The tankers were then refilling with fresh water and selling it to the Caribbean island of Aruba to be used at the Exxon refinery there. Cronin filed a complaint with the U.S. attorney's office in New York, and Exxon was ultimately forced to settle the matter by paying $2 million to state and environmental groups.
Tamminen and other members of the alliance have no enforcement power of their own. Their strength is that they know the law, and they know whom to call in which government agency to report a problem. And they know how to nag and otherwise follow up if an agency is slow in responding.
"In this era of budget cuts, we don't have enough staff to do what Terry and his people will do," said Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has six employees assigned to monitoring Santa Monica Bay. "It is good to have another set of eyes and ears out there." Because the water quality board's offices are well inland in Monterey Park, Ghirelli said, there is a tendency for the staff to sometimes "write off as insignificant" complaints about bay pollution.
"We want to fill in the gaps that are being missed--and that is being on the water," Tamminen said. "There is nobody out here \o7 looking \f7 (for violators)."
In a little more than a month of operation, Santa Monica Baykeeper already boasts of some results.
The sewage leak in Ballona Creek, for example, became a high priority issue for Los Angeles and Culver City after Tamminen kept pushing it. The source of the leak has yet to be pinpointed, but the L.A. Department of Public Works recently erected a barrier to contain the sewage and installed a portable pump to get it out of the creek and back into a sewer line.
Baykeeper also recently joined forces with the Natural Resources Defense Council in a lawsuit against Caltrans, accusing it of failing to reduce toxic storm-water runoff into the bay.