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Watchdog idle while polluters spoil San Francisco Bay

Hundreds of violations mar waters, but commission acts capriciously and infrequently, according to scathing state audit

Sunset over the waters of SF Bay. Photo by Shutterstock

The public body assigned to safeguard San Francisco Bay from polluters is so feckless and ineffectual, according to a withering state audit of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission [BCDC] released this month, that hundreds of environmental infractions have piled up without being addressed.

Among many issues, the audit declares roundly that “the commission has neglected its mission to protect the bay.”

The state auditor paints a troubling picture of the 27-member commission, which was established in 1965 by the McAteer-Petris Act to regulate development, prevent the filling of wetlands, fight pollution, and ensure public access to San Francisco Bay.

The San Francisco Chronicle points out that conclusions from the 90-plus-page audit report are ambiguous, with activists and business interests likely to read it different ways. But no matter the case, BCDC comes out bruised, accused of doing nothing in the face of mounting violations and leaving hundreds of thousands in funding unspent.

Among the complaints:

  • The commission is backed up: “In part because staff often spend years attempting to resolve violations before initiating enforcement action, the commission has amassed a backlog of more than 230 enforcement cases. The commission’s failure to resolve some of these cases has allowed significant, ongoing harm to the Bay. Further, because its backlog has become so unmanageable, the commissioners are now considering amnesty for certain categories of cases.”
  • Delays can last more than a decade: Of the 230 delays, 30 are at least ten years old and 80 are between five and ten years old. The report estimates that, in an average year, the commission adds 14 new cases to the backlog and catching up would take 20 years. The state also alleges that the commission is inconsistent with enforcement and that “some minor violations may result in penalties that are too high to be reasonable, and the commission is in essence penalizing major and minor violations equally.”
  • Bay cleanup funds are not going toward cleaning up the bay: Though the commission has over $1 million in funding meant to finance environmental restoration programs, the BCDC allegedly transferred only $20,000 to state programs in the last ten years. “The abatement fund’s balance to reach $1.5 million, at which point [the executive director] intends to transfer $1 million to the California Coastal Conservancy,” but that will be only the second time the commission has tapped the fund for its intended purpose. “Instead, the commission has used the abatement fund almost exclusively to support staff salaries and operational costs” to the tune of $300,000, according to the report.
  • Amnesty could hinge on a number of key variables: “Low-priority cases,” older cases, first-time offenders, and offenders who agree to “resolve their cases by a deadline with no fine” might be let off the hook because the commission does not have the bandwidth to pursue those infractions. The state warns that “if the commissioners decide to grant violators amnesty without resolving the causes of the backlog, they risk allowing the backlog to reoccur.”
  • Inaction causes long-term damage to Bay ecology: Auditors cite the example of illegally anchored boats in Richardson Bay as a longterm, unresolved problem. The commission had the problem on its radar since 2010 but has not acted aggressively, which, as Audubon California reported earlier this month, has caused potentially catastrophic damage to the bay’s food network.
  • The Suisun Marsh is in danger from chronic inaction: The commission is supposed to execute the state’s plan for preserving marshlands in the northeastern Bay Area. However, “because the commission has not conducted a comprehensive review of the entire marsh program or issued recommendations to the local agencies to ensure implementation of the marsh program, the commission risks that parts of the program [...] have not been working as intended to protect the marsh.”
Suisun Marsh
Photo by USFWS photo/Steve Martarano

Suisun Marsh—an area comprising Grizzly Bay, Honker Bay, and marshlands near cities like Fairfield and Benicia—covers roughly 25 percent of the area the commission looks after.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife calls it “the largest contiguous brackish water marsh remaining on the west coast of North America” and a critical habitat for hundreds of California animal species and some plants found nowhere else in the world.

In response to the audit, BCDC Chair Zack Wasserman tried to accentuate the positive, saying:

While there are statements in the audit report with which BCDC does not agree, we are pleased that the auditors found no evidence of improper staff conduct, such as bias or ‘moving the goal posts,’ as some permit violators appeared to suggest.

We appreciate the auditor’s conclusion that BCDC generally approves and imposes reasonable permit conditions that comply with state laws. We also appreciate the recognition that BCDC needs more resources.

Wassermann also called the audit’s recommendations “a roadmap to help the commission” in the future.

For the full report, including the state’s recommendations for cleaning up BCDC’s act, go here.