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Dirty Water

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

Bill Sharpsteen

Publication Year: 2010

Dirty Water is 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 Water tells how even the most polluted water can be cleaned up-by ordinary people.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

In some ways, this book is an oral history, a collage of people’s memories assembled into a story. Naturally, the book wouldn’t have been possible had those involved in the story refused my interview requests. In fact, several agreed to subsequent interrogations, patiently answering my follow- up questions so I ...

Author's Note

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pp. xv-xvi

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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 seafl oor some 320 feet below him as he hauled up a sediment sample from the area called Site 8A. The Marine Surveyor, the twenty- year- old boat he had taken to this point seven miles offshore ...

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1. The Swimmer

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pp. 6-12

Howard Bennett swam every day in nothing but an old, stretched out 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 Bennett ...

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2. The Witness

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pp. 13-25

Nothing trumps a three- eyed croaker. Dr. Rimmon Fay added the triple- eyed peeper to the freak show of fi sh 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 ...

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3. The Coalition

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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 ...

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4. Squirp

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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 ...

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5. The Press Conference

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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 ...

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6. City Hall

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pp. 62-75

In an open letter sent out to co ali tion 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 ...

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7. The Activist

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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 ...

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8. The Second Hearing

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pp. 84-97

Considering what Rim Fay had said about the fi rst 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 ...

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9. The Scientist

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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 ...

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10. The Politician

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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 ...

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11. The Brown Ribbon

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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 ...

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12. Heal the Bay

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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 ...

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13. The Dirty Toilet Awards

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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 ...

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14. The Decision

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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 ...

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15. Friend of the Court

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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 ...

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16. Outsiders and Insiders

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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 ...

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17. The 50 Percent Job

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pp. 213-232

When a scoop of dark, sandy mud comes up from the seafloor some 180 feet below the research boat La 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 ...

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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 ...


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pp. 235-254


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pp. 255-263

Production Notes

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p. 264-264

E-ISBN-13: 9780520944756
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520256606

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2010