Something smells fishy with Coastkeeper ‘teaming up’ with SeaWorld to ‘beautify’ Mission Bay.

by on October 16, 2012 · 7 comments

in Environment, Health, History, Ocean Beach, Popular, San Diego

Something smells fishy. The other day we received a press release from San Diego Coastkeeper – actually, it was a joint press release, from them and from SeaWorld – talking about how they are both “teaming up” together to “keep Mission Bay beautiful”. They’re planning a “clean the Bay day” on October 27th – and volunteers will get prizes including passes to SeaWorld.

While we applaud any organization’s efforts to clean Mission Bay – heaven knows it needs it – something just doesn’t sit well with us on this announced partnership.

Why is that? What’s wrong with a strong environmental organization with a solid reputation partnering up with a corporate entity to beautify the surrounding area?

Well, let’s face it.  SeaWorld is not just any corporate entity. Outside of the thousands of birds crapping in the water, one of the biggest polluters of Mission Bay is SeaWorld itself. Just earlier this year, SeaWorld was fined $6,000 for dumping excessive ammonia and animal waste into the Bay. (See Fox5 video here and “SeaWorld Cited for Exceeding Mission Bay Effluent Limits” in an article by Matt Potter, March 20, 2012 in the San Diego Reader.)

SeaWorld is the largest discharger of water into the Bay and has been a known polluter of the body of water, as the bay has been on California’s list of impaired water bodies for several years as it does not meet the Clean Water Act standards.

Beginning in 2004, Clean Water Act violations against SeaWorld began surfacing when several shocking complaints had been made public. A local blogger cites: “In the year 2000 SeaWorld’s water quality permit was violated eight consecutive times within a six month period. It was violated again in the year 2002.”

There were more violations:

“the California Regional Water Control Board also brought forth more shocking information. The agency states the following, “Since April 13, 2005, there have been numerous violations of effluent limitations at the facility, including three exceedances of Ammonia, six exceedances of Enterococcus, and one exceedance of Total coliform. Furthermore, there have been multiple months in which required sampling was not reported. The constituents not sampled have included pH, Total coliform, Fecal Coliform, Enterococcus, and Total Residual Chlorine.”

The City seems to be protecting SeaWorld. San Diego Park’s communications director David Koontz commented:

“Exceedences in conjunction with our water discharge permit are very infrequent and have never had a detrimental impact to the overall health of Mission Bay. We take our environmental responsibility very seriously and are proud to be excellent stewards of Mission Bay.”

 Is he ignorant or ” deliberately misinforming the public” by claiming that SeaWorld’s violations have been “infrequent”? SeaWorld has been cited for pollution dozens of times within the past 12 years. It appears that Mr. Koontz’s comment directly contradicts the records in possession of the California Regional Water Control Board.

Koontz also claims that SeaWorld does not impact the health of Mission Bay.

Yet, the San Diego Pollution Program Manager, Donna Frye, differs:

“For too long, the city has failed to protect the natural resources of Mission Bay. Almost every day, one or more areas of Mission Bay is posted with signs warning of unsafe levels of bacteria. Mission Bay does not support its beneficial uses and is listed as an impaired water body due to coliform bacteria. This problem can no longer be ignored.”

The bay is also on the top ten list of California’s most polluted beaches. To say that SeaWorld has no responsibility for the pollution of Mission Bay is entirely false since SeaWorld is the largest discharger of water into the bay.”

There’s other issues of pollution that SeaWorld is directly involved in.  Did you ever wonder where on earth SeaWorld takes the waste from its large mammals? It doesn’t take the crap very far – it’s dumped right off the shore from the facility itself, and there are mountains of underwater Orca dung between the waterworld and Fiesta Island.

Then there’s the nighty fireworks that SeaWorld sets off over Mission Bay during the summer months. It has been proven that fireworks debris – the kind that falls into the water after the shows – harms wildlife.  And just exactly how many nights do the fireworks go off?

There’s all the sound and noise pollution emanating from SeaWorld daily.  The yells and screams of people on its rides certainly cannot be helpful to either SeaWorld’s own animals and the surrounding wildlife in Mission Bay. Not to mention the explosive noise from the fireworks themselves.  We’re sure the endangered birds and other animals are lulled to sleep each night from the sound of bombs going off.

This doesn’t even touch the fact that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (APHIS) to launch an investigation into a gruesome injury received by one of SeaWorld’s orcas.

Some history here. When SeaWorld went around to the different community groups and planning committees in the surrounding neighborhoods with its initial plans for its first thrill ride back in the early days of this century, many community activists believed the facility had misrepresented the negative impacts on wildlife and on their neighborhoods.  For a while, SeaWorld acted as it if owned Mission Bay and the land it sits on.  It doesn’t – you and I and other San Diego residents, own it. SeaWorld pays our City a dirt cheap amount for leasing our public lands.

Back to San Diego Coastkeeper.  I spoke with Jill Witkowski of the organization and asked her questions about why her organization is teaming up with SeaWorld, a large polluter of the Bay.

Witkowski’s basic stance in defending the arrangement was to say that Coastkeeper tries to partner with other organizations – and has a new commitment to do that with groups like SeaWorld over issues that they can agree on – cleaning up Mission Bay – which helps provide a forum to build relationships and dialog over issues that they don’t agree on.

Despite SeaWorld’s pollution records and problems, it is basically in compliance with the Clean Water Act permit, she stated, as it has paid for its violations.  As to the fireworks debris pollution, she said Coastkeeper does have disagreements with SeaWorld over the issue.

When I tried to explain the checkered history and relationships SeaWorld has with the surrounding communities, Witkowski begged off on these details. When SeaWorld reps went around to the OB Planning Board and the Peninsula Planning Committee, members of OB Grassroots Organization – for instance – felt that they had been lied to by the reps and those representing the City as well. Local activists also felt that SeaWorld had been less than forthcoming in the years where there were reports of a nearby toxic waste dump right on its boundary.  (I invited Jill Witkowski or a member of San Diego Coastkeeper to respond to this post.)

It appears that the corporate entity that owns SeaWorld is benefiting in its public PR campaign by saddling up with San Diego Coastkeeper.  SeaWorld’s reputation has been sullied of late by the reports of pollution that it caused, so it needs to make amends and look cleaner.

Hopefully, by partnering with a polluting facility like SeaWorld, Coastkeeper’s own reputation will not be sullied.

UPDATE:  Coastkeeper has responded – see here.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

JEC October 16, 2012 at 5:29 pm

There’s no denying Sea World is an important economic asset. A polluted bay is not good for tourism and San Diego has every right – yes right but also a responsibility to set and enforce limits. As Jill from Coastkeeper noted, it’s in our interests to work together. I am concerned though in what role Coastkeeper is taking. Jill, toogether with Megan were appointed co-directors in July replacing the previous Executive Director Gale Filter after a short 11 months in the chair. The organization has experienced considerable change in the last 15 months. Coastkeeper, in association with Waterkeeper have been focused on enforcing the Clean Water Act and protecting coastal habitats. Providing an independent oversight of our common and shared resources. Will Coastkeeper’s oversight of the single most important player in the ecology of Mission Bay be compromised? Which, be damned, makes me ask about money. What exactly will Coastkeeper do? Is Sea World a corporate donor to Coastkeeper? Does this specific partnership involve a donation? I guess it’s wait and see. In the mean time, I wish them all the luck.


Frank Gormlie October 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Jon, you hit the nail on the head: is Coastkeeper’s responsibility of providing an independent oversight of Mission Bay being compromised with their “partnering” of a major corporate polluter and any possible contributions the company is making to Coastkeeper. Hopefully, Coastkeeper will take me up and respond – to this and other questions and concerns.


unWASHEdWalmaRtthONG October 16, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Maybe Sea World can “partner” w/ Sempra Energy & clean up SONGS, or perhaps they can “partner” w/ The Army Corps of Engineers & clean up the entire East coast seaboard, or perhaps they can “partner” w/ the Crips & Bloods & clean up Compton, or perhaps they can “partner” w/ China & Walmart & Target & Sears & Home Depot & Lowe’s & clean up the Pacific Gyre. With a Corporate I Can Attitude, I think they can do it, especially now that corporations have been deemed “people” by SCOTUS.
I never swim in the bay, & I wouldn’t even send a quadraplegic English Spaniel into the water to fetch a ball.
Bump up the rent Sea World pays or make them clean the effluent they dump into the bay. Or both.


Stu October 17, 2012 at 8:18 am

Mission bay and the SeaWorld whales are everything to Sea world without a clean presentable bay there will be no Sea World.
It is an interesting arrangement Maybe you could call it bipartisanship. If they can work together it will be a good thing.
For now it is wait and see


Megan Baehrens October 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Hello Frank and OB Rag readers.

First of all, Frank, thank you for maintaining a level of journalism in San Diego that holds the community accountable. We indeed asked ourselves some of these same questions nearly a year ago as we weighed our options for how to work with SeaWorld—as you note, a significant presence on our waterfront. Ultimately, as Jill pointed out, we believe it’s important to build relationships and respect—all while maintaining integrity–in order to open doors to much harder (and much more important) dialogue.

We are aware of SeaWorld’s storied past and dedicated much time to understanding their practices to ensure we could be proud of this partnership. In fact, you mention some fairly old facts about SeaWorld and the health of Mission Bay. We’d be happy to meet with you or any of your readers to share what we know.

That does not change the fact that you and JEC ask very tough questions, and we like to see informed citizens doing just that. Yes, we received a $10,000 grant from SeaWorld to cover our staff’s time managing a debris cleanup project later this month. And, no, this will not impede any movement on our part to hold SeaWorld accountable for water quality issues should we not be able to sit at a table and find solutions together. This is not a new practice in Coastkeeper’s history. For many years and currently, we’ve partnered with and accepted money from agencies like the City of San Diego and the County of San Diego while also using aggressive measures to hold them accountable for decision making and lack of response to water quality crises.

We think we balance this well, value these complicated relationships with major players in the region and look forward to sharing with you and your readers positive results we achieve with SeaWorld.

Specifically to JEC and Stu, thank you for being part of this conversation. I invite you any time to have coffee to talk about our role in this community and any concerns you have. I appreciate that you follow our work.

Thank you,
Megan Baehrens
San Diego Coastkeeper Executive Director


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