Activist Recounts Earlier OB Battle With SeaWorld – 13 Years Ago

by on April 24, 2014 · 6 comments

in Civil Rights, Environment, Health, History, Ocean Beach, Organizing

April 29th 2001 Protest at SeaWorld

April 29th 2001 Protest at Toxic Dump Site – SeaWorld Drive. Author is seen in back row.

 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.

SeaWorld Roller Coaster 2001

SeaWorld’s Journey to Atlantis roller coaster as presented in 2001

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.

OBGO logo - 2000

OBGO logo – 2000

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.

SeaWorld & Toxic Dump Site in MIssion Bay Park

SeaWorld & Toxic Dump Site in MIssion Bay Park

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.

Despite the loss at Coastal Commission, OBGO continued to organize and watch SeaWorld’s expansion plans. In July 2002 SeaWorld threatened to cancel their expansion plans if the City required them to hire union employee’s. In August 2003 the Coastal Commission rejected SeaWorld’s plan to extend their parking lot east over the site of the former toxic dump, citing contamination concerns. A study of the site was undertaken by ‘The Mission Bay Landfill Technical Advisory Committee” and City hired consultants. The process guided by Donna Frye and other activists finished in 2006 and recommended that no development be undertaken on the site.
Fast forward to today and SeaWorld now has their parking lot. They are still violating their NPDES permits by discharging high levels of effluent (whale poop) into Mission Bay. To add to the misery of circling a tiny tank endlessly, their marine mammals are now subject to the screaming noise of two thrill rides in addition to two hundred plus nights of exploding fireworks each year. Local voices continue to speak up for these animals who cannot speak for themselves and it seems more and more are listening. Perhaps some day soon these voices will finally be heard and San Diego will find a more ethical way to earn it’s tourist dollars.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Zach Affolter April 24, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Thank you for a well-written article on the on-going battle against SeaWorld, not just focused on cetaceans, but the marine environment as a whole. You would think a marine park who asserts an ever-so-important message of conservation would care more about the animals they imprison or at least the ocean in general. It is so hypocritical of them to emphasize conservation when they fail to speak out against the slaughter in Taiji, pollute Mission Bay, and support commercial fishing by giving the whales a large amount of fish, people fish to feed them, and selling overly priced fish to eat.

One day we will all understand…

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avatar Marc S April 24, 2014 at 4:43 pm

It was your article that really brought my memory back. Thanks to the OB Rag for giving us a place to document this local history. It interesting to note in recent articles three totally separate generations all taking action to bring people’s attention to the greed and questionable ethics of SeaWorld.

Although the focus of these demonstrations was the toxic dump site and SeaWorld’s impact on Mission Bay, many activists were motivated by love of the animals.

SeaWorld’s lease on public park land is also hypocritical. They claim they deserve low lease rates for being an “educational” facility. What is educational about roller coasters is beyond me.

During this process they estimated the project would add over thirty thousand car trips a week to Sea World Drive and surrounding roads. Yet they fought with the City to not pay for road improvements.

When this was written there was a water pollution warning in some part of Mission Bay 290 days a year. Yet SeaWorld is still violating it’s discharge permits to this day.

Hopefully your generation will be the one that makes us understand.

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avatar Martha Sullivan April 29, 2014 at 5:53 am

Excellent recap of grassroots community organizing and SeaWorld’s long history of deceiving the public. Thank You.

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avatar Jane Cartmill April 30, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Seeing the comment about SeaWorld “spies” reminded me that our local grassroots animal rights organization, San Diego Animal Advocates, was infiltrated by a SeaWorld operative during the time of the proceedings in 1998. Guy showed up suddenly, became very interested and involved in all of our activities EXCEPT anything to do with SeaWorld and did everything possible to divert attention to other issues – organizing all kinds of events and lobbying volunteers to join his efforts instead of our scheduled events focusing on SW. He finally formed a competing animal rights group to dilute our focus on SeaWorld’s expansion, claiming that the number of animals held by SeaWorld parks were “not enough to matter” compared to other issues. Some people drank the Kool-Aid and abandoned the marine mammal captivity cause based on his arguments. The minute the vote was over/ however, and SW got their height increase permit, he disappeared and was never seen or heard from again. We will see such operatives again as the pressure mounts on SeaWorld to make changes.

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avatar Barb Dunsmore May 1, 2014 at 10:33 am

As I recall, he even managed to get one of your members, who apparently drank the kool-aid, to change your SDAA voice mail recorded message that directed people to act, while you were in hospital! Not much has changed in all these years, in fact the infiltration of effective organizations and groups have only gotten worse, 100 fold! Beware of everyone around you, people.

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avatar Marc S May 1, 2014 at 12:55 pm

What an underhanded bunch. That shows how little they care about their captive animal’s welfare, and how desperate they are to protect their profit margin. They weren’t successful in diverting our group. All they could do is report back on our plans. We were having public meetings anyway so it didn’t really matter.

When they had their Coastal Commission hearing they gave employees the day off to attend. Guess they couldn’t find any actual supporters so they had to pay some.

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