Navy attitude toward San Diego civilian health and safety invites citizen lawsuits  

by Richard Dittbenner


ew Yorkers recently celebrated the return of striped bass to a cleaner Hudson River, one with much lower levels of PCBs and heavy metals. New Yorkers' hard fought achievement is a reminder of the long way we who live on or near San Diego Bay and our coastal waterways have to go to have clean water once again. There, as here, some folks still remember romantic moonlight swims in water that never made you sick.

Cleaner water in the Hudson River was not achieved over night. It took the combined efforts of an active citizenry, enlightened corporate leaders, regulatory enforcement, and aggressive litigation against recalcitrant polluters. Sadly, some of the lessons of the Hudson River clean up have not been learned by the major polluters in San Diego. The record of regulatory compliance and good stewardship of our common natural resource by major polluters remains abysmal.


Lessons not learned


Southwest Marine was recently found liable in Federal District Court (in a lawsuit brought by San Diego BayKeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council) for dumping of thousands of tons of toxins into San Diego Bay. Still, its leaders struggle to avoid a full accounting for their wrongs to the citizens. It has taken lawsuits and the threats of lawsuits by BayKeeper to compel CalTrans and wrecking yards in the Otay Valley to stop their toxic discharges into our coastal waterways.

The County of San Diego's attorneys have been dragging their feet for two years in another pollution case. BayKeeper is taking a close look at other industrial and governmental water and watershed polluters throughout San Diego County. Environmental Health Coalition has taken the lead in lawsuits against others polluters. More citizen lawsuits will be brought against flagrant polluters who refuse obey the law and clean up their act. Why are citizens bringing lawsuits and not the Environmental Protection Agency? The EPA rarely makes polluters in San Diego County obey the law.


Navy town


The worst polluter of San Diego waters is the US Navy. Notwithstanding the efforts of many well-meaning sailors and officers to curb the dumping of cancer-causing and reproductive toxins into our air and water, the Navy remains exempt from most of the federal antipollution laws that apply to citizens and industry. As a result of this lack of regulatory accountability, the Navy annually dumps tens of thousands of gallons of cancer-causing contaminants and other reproductive toxins into our waters and environment. This does not include amounts that have gone unreported.

In a 1969 Vessel Pollution Study in San Diego, the US Department of the Interior told the Navy that, "It should be possible to reduce the number of oil spills significantly by making it mandatory that proper authorities be informed in detail of all spills, rejecting the notion that spills are unavoidable, and by taking appropriate action to prevent repetition." Thirty years later, the Navy has still not followed this advice.

Navy toxic pollution-creating activity in San Diego County is worsening. The Navy recently constructed two radioactive materials and waste storage facilities at their bases in San Diego. And, the Navy plans to put six nuclear reactors in the middle of the sixth largest city in the United States. The Navy has emergency evacuation plans for their personnel in case of a nuclear accident, including potassium iodide distribution (to block thyroid cancer caused from breathing radioactive particles). However, unlike their counterparts in the British Navy, our Navy leaders refuse to help surrounding civilian communities (i.e., within a 50 mile radius) prepare in case of nuclear accident.

Not long ago, the US Navy waited almost a full day before admitting to health authorities in the State of Washington that a radiological accident had occurred at the Bremerton Navy base too late for citizens downwind to protect themselves and independently confirm the amount of radiation they ingested. Even then, the Navy only disclosed the release in response to a tip to the Bremerton Star newspaper.


Arrogance in action


The Navy has gone further to suppress the citizens' right to protect their health. Federal District court records show that the Navy had a civilian scientist collecting water samples in Washington's Puget Sound (to test for waterborne radioactive particles from the nearby Bremerton Navy Base) arrested by the Coast Guard. Although the Court found that the Navy had violated the citizen's rights, it was a hollow victory. The Navy had already destroyed the water samples. To prevent further citizen sampling of public waters near the base, the Navy responded by greatly enlarging the federal security zone in the Puget Sound.

During the past several weeks, Rear Admiral Veronica Froman, the so-called "Navy Mayor" of San Diego naval bases, twice refused to meet with a small group of thoughtful San Diego citizens concerned about Navy plans to add to the toxin burden we are all under. She refused to meet, indicating through her legal aide that she would only meet with those on her organizational level. And, her aides were instructed not to accept a notebook reflecting community concern when a small delegation composed of a Methodist minister, Environmental Health Coalition leader, and a college faculty member, asked to give it to her. Even efforts by San Diego Congressman Bob Filner to bring about a meeting between the Navy and concerned San Diego citizens were rebuffed.

Is the Navy's refusal to carry out the Interior Department's recommendations to prevent toxic pollution of our waters, and the conduct of Rear Admiral Froman, the kind of behavior we should expect from an organization that purports to want to be a "good neighbor?" Isn't the right to petition our governmental officials a fundamental right?"

This is the kind of grossly negligent and antidemocratic approach to civilian health and safety that invites citizens to speak to the Navy and other polluters through lawsuits. Unfortunately, reasoned discussion and negotiation with some polluters just won't work.

  Richard Dittbenner is Professor of Law at Southwestern College, a PhD candidate (Cleaner Technology & Industrial Ecology) at Erasmus University, Rotterdam (The Netherlands), a member of the San Diego Bay-Keeper Board of Directors, Technical Member, US Naval Air Station North Island (Environmental) Restoration Advisory Board, and a member of the International Federation of Environmental Reporters. Email: or