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Able to Collect Toxic Residue In a Single Bound!

OK, So Steve Fleischli isn't a SuperHero, But His Task is Herculean: Protect the Coast From Southern California's Bad Habits.

February 18, 2001|JIM BENNING | Jim Benning last wrote for the magazine about the Surfrider Foundation

Steve Fleischli loves few things more than clean, clear water, the stuff known to habitues of the High Sierra and the South Pacific. But there isn't much of the stuff in Los Angeles, so Fleischli has devoted himself to cleaning up dirty water laden with copper, lead, nickel and zinc residue; foamy ocean water strewn with fast-food wrappers and soda cans; rain runoff loaded with thousands of cigarette butts. Fleischli would like to be out of a job, but the bad habits of a growing metropolis ensure that he'll have plenty to do for decades to come.

Which explains why, on this day, he is standing in an empty, industrial stretch of Carson, his head battered by a rainstorm, his blue jeans soaked, inspecting a stream of black, oily ooze flowing from the driveway of an auto dismantling yard. "What are fish supposed to do in that?" he snarls, anticipating the runoff's journey from a nearby storm drain into the Dominguez Channel and, eventually, Los Angeles Harbor. Fleischli crouches next to the tainted water and grimaces as he collects a sample in a small beaker. "This," he says, displaying the dusky liquid with satisfaction, "is evidence."

If Fleischli were a cartoon character, he might be dubbed "Aquacop." His real-life title is more nondescript--executive director of Santa Monica BayKeeper, a five-person nonprofit environmental group. But his pursuit is worthy of superhero status: protecting the Los Angeles coast from the never-ending onslaught of industrial grime, toxic slime and fish-killing filth generated each day by the area's millions of people. Southern Californians love to brag to landlocked relatives about L.A.'s beautiful beaches and blue waves, but the reality is far less Edenic. Sea lions strangle themselves with fishing line; needles and dirty diapers wash up on shorelines; and even light rainstorms send so much bacteria and muck down storm drains and into local waters that health officials regularly warn swimmers to avoid the waves for several days.

Given all that, Fleischli's task is downright Sisyphean. The books are loaded with anti-pollution laws designed to keep L.A.'s waterways clean, but the junk simply continues to mount. Officials can't keep up with the growing population and its stream of detritus. As a result, enforcement is often sporadic. In setting policy, government agencies, under constant pressure from developers, must do a delicate balancing act and sometimes give business concerns priority over the environment.

Fleischli and the other BayKeeper staff choose to ignore the overwhelming odds and keep tabs on whatever their meager resources allow. The group doesn't have the name recognition of Heal the Bay, which works to educate the public and beef up clean-water laws with an annual budget five times BayKeeper's $400,000. But Fleischli seems content to think of BayKeeper as Heal the Bay's scrappy kid brother, the one with the attitude. "We look at ourselves as the police enforcing the rules that Heal the Bay is working to create," he says.

Fleischli and his colleagues routinely patrol Santa Monica Bay, peering through binoculars at suspicious tankers. They log anonymous pollution tips on a 24-hour hotline. And they investigate businesses and industries throughout inland Southern California, sampling the rainwater spilling out of industrial yards and filing lawsuits in attempts to stop polluters. "Urban runoff is the No. 1 problem for all Southern California coastal waters," Fleischli says. It's a sentiment echoed by Dennis Dickerson, executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. "It's one of the most significant problems that we have," he says.

That's why, on this stormy day, when most Southern Californians are taking cover, Fleischli dons his jacket at BayKeeper's Marina del Rey office, jumps into his Toyota pickup and makes a beeline for the Carson auto dismantling yard, one of many local sites the group has monitored. Over Tom Petty tunes and the patter of rain, Fleischli explains his urgency: Auto dismantling yards are vast graveyards for old cars. Dismantlers salvage the raw materials, but oil and heavy metals from the cars often collect on the ground, and unless owners take preventive steps, rainwater can wash the oil and metals onto city streets and into storm drains leading straight to the Pacific. Roughly 300 dismantlers operate in the county. Benzene, lead, copper, oil and grease all threaten the health of the ocean, Fleischli says.

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