By Marc Snelling
Opposition to SeaWorld San Diego and their corporate business model has been well documented in recent OB Rag stories. Easter Protest at SeaWorld San Diego by Zach Affolter, “The Night I Decided to Stop Going to Sea World.” by Lori Saldaña, and the ongoing Orca Profiles in Captivity series represent a wave of voices speaking up for the animals and the community.
This recent wave in part fueled by the documentary ‘Blackfish’ and California Assembly Bill 2140 seeking to ban the use of marine mammals for entertainment purposes, is reminiscent of another wave opposition a decade ago.
Thirteen years ago today the Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization (OBGO) released their response to SeaWorld’s 20-year Master Plan and draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Five days later on April 29th 2001, OBGO held a protest on Sea World Drive drawing attention the toxic waste dump site under the east side of SeaWorld’s parking lot and South Shores Park and their plans to build a nearby 95-foot high thrill ride.
In November 1998, after a huge public relations campaign, voters narrowly approved Proposition D (by 0.7 percent), giving then Anheuser-Busch owned SeaWorld an exemption to the 30 foot coastal height limit on it’s City leasehold in Mission Bay Park.
All of the communities surrounding SeaWorld voted against the proposition. SeaWorld used their narrow Prop D victory to help convert their facility into a Disney-like theme park on San Diego public parkland. A fact denied by SeaWorld at the time, but made more evident by construction of their second thrill ride in 2012, covered in the OB Rag Story SeaWorld Plans New Roller Coaster – Requires Excavation of 24 Feet
Although SeaWorld claimed they had no plans to build roller coasters when the proposition went on the ballot, they later released a master plan including the 95-foot Journey to Atlantis roller coaster, as well as a hotel, convention center, parking lot expansion and more. The planned roller coaster was slated for the northeast corner of SeaWorld’s leasehold adjacent to the site that operated as a city hazardous waste dump between 1952 and 1959 handling waste for defense manufacturers and industry.
Due to the massive nature of their development plans SeaWorld was required to produce an EIR. The draft EIR ignored and underestimated key points concerning traffic, air quality, water quality, the toxic landfill and local endangered wildlife. SeaWorld’s draft environmental report and it’s appendices were over 400 pages. Organizing meetings were held in OB to address the report and find a unified community voice. Many community members at the time spoke about the noise and cramped conditions that sea mammals are forced to endure at SeaWorld.
In 2000 a new group “OBGO” had formed in Ocean Beach. After SeaWorld’s plans became public knowledge, in November OBGO began organizing a boycott of Anheuser-Busch products (then owners of SeaWorld.) In December of 2000 OBGO organizers took things a step further organizing a picket of SeaWorld’s float in OB’s holiday parade.
The action brought much local attention to SeaWorld’s plan and got many people talking. Over the next months people met frequently, pouring over SeaWorld’s plans. Donna Frye, then with the group Surfers Tired of Pollution (STOP) drew attention to fines paid by SeaWorld for discharging high levels of waste into Mission Bay in violation of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.
Local activists worked towards a unified voice which culminated in a 63-page report in response to SeaWorld’s Master Plan. The document drafted by a team of OBGO activists including Gregg Robinson, myself, Lynne Vanderpot, and Debora Greene was submitted thirteen years ago today. SeaWorld was legally required to respond to the issues raised in our report in their Final EIR at the California Coastal Commission.
After issuing it’s written report OBGO organized continued opposition to SeaWorld’s Master Plan including a march from OB and rally at the toxic dump site. The rally drew attention to the dump site, the existence of which was long denied by the City. The City records of the dump had been destroyed decades ago, but when developers released plans in the 1980s to build a hotel on the site, a whistleblower leaked the story to the press.
Later in the 80s during excavations for the boat ramp at what is now ‘South Shores Park’ workers hit a plume of toxic gas. Several workers were hospitalized and one later died, with the City paying out on a wrongful death lawsuit. Following OBGO’s rally the San Diego Reader produced an in-depth piece on the dump, Something Stinks in Mission Bay.
OBGO’s actions did not stop with the April 2001 protest. Community organizing continued with activists attending the San Diego Planning Commission in June to voice their concerns. In July 2001 SeaWorld’s plans came before San Diego City Council with several activists from OBGO and other organizations speaking against the expansion. By this time SeaWorld corporate reps seemed to become worried about the level of community opposition to their plans and began sending ‘spies’ to OBGO meetings to monitor the groups actions.
Opposition continued into the following year with a showdown at a February 7th 2002 California Coastal Commission meeting. Coastal Commission staff had reviewed OBGO’s EIR response and others and recommended a ‘no’ vote on SeaWorld’s Master Plan as submitted. Despite their own staff’s call for 37 major changes, the comissioners went against staff recommendations approving SeaWorld’s plan in a controversial 7-3 vote. Commissioners David Algood, Trent Orr and Sara Wan cast the votes in support of protecting Mission Bay Park.