Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Dirty Water

Dirty Water: One Man's Fight to Clean Up One of the World's Most Polluted Bays

Bill Sharpsteen
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Dirty Water
    Book Description:

    Dirty Wateris the riveting story of how Howard Bennett, a Los Angeles schoolteacher with a gift for outrageous rhetoric, fought pollution in Santa Monica Bay--and won. The story begins in 1985, when many scientists considered the bay to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. The insecticide DDT covered portions of the sea floor. Los Angeles discharged partially treated sewage into its waters. Lifeguards came down with mysterious illnesses. And Howard Bennett happily swam in it every morning. By accident, Bennett learned that Los Angeles had applied for a waiver from the Clean Water Act to continue discharging sewage into the bay. Incensed that he had been swimming in dirty water, Bennett organized oddball coalition to orchestrate stunts such as wrapping brown ribbon around LA's city hall and issuing Dirty Toilet Awards to chastise the city's administration. This is the fast-paced story of how this unusual cast of characters created an environmental movement in Los Angeles that continues to this day with the nationally recognized Heal the Bay. Character-driven, compelling, and uplifting,Dirty Watertells how even the most polluted water can be cleaned up-by ordinary people.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94475-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Author’s Note
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. PROLOGUE. Surfer Scientist
    (pp. 1-5)

    Dr. John Dorsey liked to call it black mayonnaise. That pretty much described the thick mat of sewage sludge that lay on the seafloor some 320 feet below him as he hauled up a sediment sample from the area called Site 8A. TheMarine Surveyor,the twenty-year-old boat he had taken to this point seven miles offshore, barely rocked on the early summer seas, and it seemed as though the Pacific Ocean that surrounded him was pure, clean, and untouched.

    It wasn’t really. Some people called that sludge below him a dead zone, an underwater desert, which wasn’t actually lifeless...

  7. CHAPTER 1 The Swimmer
    (pp. 6-12)

    Howard Bennett swam every day in nothing but an old, stretchedout black Speedo, dunking his slender, mostly naked body into the frigid, fifty-six-degree Pacific Ocean at six o’clock in the morning. Given his habit of self-deprecation, he might have admitted how stupid this was, especially in winter, but Bennetthadto swim each morning. This was more than mere routine; it approached a biologic need. He symbolically, almost ritually, washed off the stress he had accumulated as a high school teacher the day before by stroking away in the dark morning water. Heneededto be enveloped in that chilling...

  8. CHAPTER 2 The Witness
    (pp. 13-25)

    Nothing trumps a three-eyed croaker. Dr. Rimmon Fay added the triple-eyed peeper to the freak show of fish he had pulled from Santa Monica Bay as proof that the waters off Southern California were disastrously polluted. In the jar of horrors that he took to various government hearings on the bay during the early 1980s, he showed off fish with other, more common afflictions too—cancerous black tumors, deformed spines, and fin rot—all caused, he said, by the barely treated sewage pouring into the bay every day. The pickled white croakers stared at the unmoved officials, who invariably figured...

  9. CHAPTER 3 The Coalition
    (pp. 26-42)

    For the sake of a good story, Howard Bennett rarely worries if his tales don’t always portray him in the best light. Ask him if he knew anything about Santa Monica Bay’s pollution before the old man’s warning and he’ll tell you a seemingly unrelated tale of how, after a rainstorm, he and a lifeguard friend swam north from Playa del Rey beach to where the nearby swollen Ballona Creek emptied into the ocean. The current rushed through so strongly there that it was like heading into an aquatic treadmill. They stroked and stroked as hard as they could just...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Squirp
    (pp. 43-52)

    Let’s say hello to propaganda for a moment. For the sake of simplicity and instant persuasion, some enviros at the time initially blurred the distinction between raw and partially treated sewage, dependably evoking visceral reactions from anyone they told that Los Angeles—both city and county—was polluting Santa Monica Bay with,ew,sewage. They knew this automatically created in almost everyone’s mind the not-so-pleasant picture of turds washing ashore while kids played in the surf. In fact, Bennett developed a favorite line for this image, telling reporters, “When I swam, often I tasted things in the water. I thought...

  11. CHAPTER 5 The Press Conference
    (pp. 53-61)

    Howard Bennett was a walking contradiction. With a sometimes lofty Ivy League lilt, he would quote Shakespeare to buttress a point he was making, and yet he saw himself as the common man, and one who understood what other guys supposedly just like him wanted. While he’d never cozy up in a lounge chair with a beer, he believed he knew what average Joes would respond to. He had a special talent, he said, for the kind of publicity that appealed to the masses. The same masses who probably never read Shakespeare or had heard the quote “Something is rotten...

  12. CHAPTER 6 City Hall
    (pp. 62-75)

    In an open letter sent out to coalition members and other interested parties on April 11, Howard Bennett asked Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, regarding his administration’s consistent assertion that full secondary treatment at Hyperion would cost too much, “Is saving money more important than saving the lives and health of people?”

    According to those who worked for Bradley, it wasn’t that he wanted to see Santa Monica Bay polluted any further in exchange for saving a few million dollars. Instead, the guy was running a huge city, and he had staffers to handle such matters. Insulated from Bennett’s accusatory...

  13. CHAPTER 7 The Activist
    (pp. 76-83)

    As a storyteller, Howard Bennett isn’t one for analyzing pivotal moments in a narrative—those plot points where, if a certain thing didn’t happen, the world would be different. He simply cruises through the story, incorporating as many asides as he can squeeze in to explain one thing or another, until the tale starts losing steam. If a certain event in the story has a meaning, he chooses not to think about it. The story itself is enough for him; he doesn’t need to get all intellectual about it.

    That’s one reason why—when talking about the co ali tion’s...

  14. CHAPTER 8 The Second Hearing
    (pp. 84-97)

    Considering what Rim Fay had said about the first 301(h) waiver hearing—that there was no way Howard Bennett could reverse the waiver’s inevitable approval—getting a second hearing before the EPA and Regional Water Quality Control Board was surprisingly easy.

    Less than two weeks after he announced, on behalf of his nascent coalition, “We want one more hearing—just one more chance,” the EPA, Region 9, sent Bennett a letter dated April 9 that, in the most neutral tone, complied with his somewhat pugnacious request. The one-page missive hardly took a whole breath to read out loud: “As per...

  15. CHAPTER 9 The Scientist
    (pp. 98-120)

    The silence Willard Bascom imposed on Dr. David Brown lasted no more than four days. The following Friday, May 17, at another public hearing, Brown publicly accused his boss of laundering SCCWRP’s research into bright, stainless conclusions instead of allowing his scientists the freedom to voice their belief that Santa Monica Bay was so polluted that its diverse marine life had largely disappeared in places. And while the statement itself was fairly brief, Brown figured this should have ignited the city—should have inflamed environmentalists and the thus-far laissez faire politicians alike. He couldn’t imagine riots in the streets, but...

  16. CHAPTER 10 The Politician
    (pp. 121-135)

    Howard Bennett learned about Willard Bascom through the newspaper articles regarding David Brown’s accusations that sprouted up for a few days and, later, through phone conversations with Brown himself. Bennett now had a villain for his Santa Monica Bay morality play. Unlike Mayor Tom Bradley or the Los Angeles City Council, who occupied a gray area between good and evil, the Bascom story was black and white. Whenever Bennett talked about Bascom, his voice got louder and the words sped by, expressing such umbrage that you would think Bascom had personally defiled the beach outside Bennett’s house. Occasionally, he’d even...

  17. CHAPTER 11 The Brown Ribbon
    (pp. 136-146)

    It should have been just a lousy phone bill. One of those normal obligations that most people pay without thinking twice. But this—this was a vacuum hose inserting itself into Howard Bennett’s checking account and sucking out the dollars. Pages and pages listed long-distance calls that he had sprayed like buckshot to Southern California, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. Government officials, legislators, environmentalists, and the media were all represented by cold black numbers and indecipherable city abbreviations. The total due amounted to nearly what a schoolteacher took home in a month, and it was easily the single most tangible piece...

  18. CHAPTER 12 Heal the Bay
    (pp. 147-158)

    Bente Bennett felt as though she had lost her husband. He rarely talked about anything other than the campaign, and for months life had centered on sewage. Sewage! Yes, she was angry that the government in all its forms was responsible for her Howie swimming in polluted waters. But this obsession with sewage had strangled their life, their marriage.

    It wasn’t just their relationship. It was the constant intrusive phone calls. Howie had scattered calls seemingly across the country like a telemarketer, and now people were calling him back. And even though she disliked talking on the phone, she felt...

  19. CHAPTER 13 The Dirty Toilet Awards
    (pp. 159-165)

    Dorothy Green generally came across with a near-grandmotherly warmth so immediate that you half expected her to pull a plate of warm biscuits from her purse. Jamie Simons, among others, thought of Green as her “second mother.” In some cases, this might have been mere strategy, but it did come from a learned conviction that, if you wanted to sway the decision makers, at the very least you had to behave as though you respected them. That’s why Howard Bennett’s plan to flush their names down a john like used toilet paper had to be stopped. This was more than...

  20. CHAPTER 14 The Decision
    (pp. 166-175)

    In early 1964, Los Angeles installed an odd contraption on concrete-lined Ballona Creek at Jackson Avenue in Culver City that largely went unseen for some twenty years. Spending more than $161,000, engineers built a hundred-foot-long, six-foot-wide reinforced concrete pipe bypass from the main sewer line to an eight-foot-by-ten-foot concrete box. At the time, this must have seemed like a simple solution to one of the city’s oldest problems: sewage spills when volume exceeded capacity in the sewer line, usually during heavy rainfall. Incredibly, there were times in the early twentieth century when raw sewage burst from sewage lines and literally...

  21. CHAPTER 15 Friend of the Court
    (pp. 176-193)

    Felicia Marcus was waylaid by sewage. Sewage became her life, her obsession, the focus of her goals. It was entirely possible that even the Hyperion engineers weren’t as enthusiastic about the subject of treating what people flushed down the city’s pipes as she was.

    Sewage was—and is, of course—the most basic of a society’s challenges. A city as large as Los Angeles produced enough sewage in one day—420 million gallons in 1985—to create the state’s tenth-largest river (metaphorically, at least). And how to deal with that flood of effluent fascinated Marcus. In 1985, when she was...

  22. CHAPTER 16 Outsiders and Insiders
    (pp. 194-212)

    There are times when you have to ask the inevitable question that comes with an inevitable answer. You have no choice. Your future has already been decided, and you can’t do a thing about it. Dave Brown was in that position on February 19, 1987. Sitting across from Jack Anderson, his SCCWRP boss for more than a year, he asked him, “Would it be in my best interest to look at pursuing my career elsewhere?” Anderson told him yes.

    Granted, some of us might have put the question a little differently, with perhaps a small, sincere quiver in the voice,...

  23. CHAPTER 17 The 50 Percent Job
    (pp. 213-232)

    When a scoop of dark, sandy mud comes up from the seafloor some 180 feet below the research boatLa Mer,it looks like a gelatinous blob of lifeless dirt. Looking at it, one can’t help but wonder if the infamous “dead zone” so debated in 1985 still exists. Nevertheless, two marine biologists for the City of Los Angeles’ Environmental Monitoring Division eyeball the dripping pile as though they’re about to open a Christmas present. “New mud!” one laughs. “Never disturbed.”

    The two, with a combined fifty-three years’ experience, dump the shiny glob into a large metal sink with almost...

  24. Epilogue
    (pp. 233-234)

    I last saw Dorothy Green when we met at her home on June 2, 2008, for a few follow-up interview questions and for her to pose for a portrait for this book. Even though she felt exhausted after a trip to San Francisco to promote a book she had written about water use issues, she gamely answered my questions (still showing a little irritation over any discussion of Howard Bennett) and even worked the camera like a pro when we took the pictures. A few days later, I sent her three pictures she had requested, and she wrote back, saying,...

  25. Resources
    (pp. 235-254)
  26. Index
    (pp. 255-263)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 264-264)