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Monday, May 29, 2023



Staff Reporter

Terry Tamminen is a polluter’s worst nightmare an environmentalist with plenty of money backing him up.

Tamminen heads Environment Now, a watchdog group with a $20 million endowment from the Wells Family Foundation that was established by the estate of Frank Wells, the late president of Walt Disney Co.

Tamminen earned his environmental credentials as founder of the Santa Monica Baykeepers, a group that uses the courts to force polluters to take measures to keep their toxic waste from ending up in the Pacific.

One of Environment Now’s goals is to set up a “picket line of baykeeper operations” from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

Tamminen used to own and operate a successful pool-cleaning business and counted some of L.A.’s most famous residents as his clients, including Johnny Carson, George C. Scott and Barbra Streisand. Earlier in life he made good money converting apartment complexes into condominiums. But real-world business experience convinced him that helping to protect the environment need not hurt the bottom line.

Question: What is the primary goal of Environment Now?

Answer: What distinguishes us from other environmental groups is that we try to stop pollution where it starts, one polluter at a time. So whether it is someone calling our 800 number saying they saw a gas-station attendant hosing grease into a storm drain, or whether it’s a major corporation dumping waste into the river, we figure out the appropriate way for the offender to change their behavior.

During my time at the Baykeepers, we handled over 500 cases and only 160 of those were litigated. So you see, the vast majority of cases can be solved through education and other corrective measures. And out of the 160 that litigated, only one ever went to trial. That was against Caltrans.

Q: How did that turn out?

A: Luckily, we had a lot of technical support from the Natural Resources Defense Council, so we won that case. It was precedent-setting, because it was the first time the Federal Clean Water Act forced a state agency to clean up their act.

The courts found that Caltrans was generating tremendous amounts of pollution from their maintenance yards, as well as their vehicles, and had made no effort to prevent storm-water pollution. We won that in 1995. Since then I think we have turned them around and made them a model for the rest of the nation.

Q: Is L.A.’s environment getting better?

A: By any measure the situation is getting better. If you look at the kind of discharge coming out of the sewage plants, they are measurably better. Despite the fact that the city has grown dramatically, air quality has gotten better.

But in the last 25 years, since the start of the modern environmental movement, we have picked off all the low-hanging fruit. We have done the easy things. Now it gets tougher, because you are paying more per pound. It was cheap for us to get the first 50 percent. But now we are spending more and more to get less and less. So you get some elements of society that are asking what is the cost benefit.

Q: You had a lot of wealthy, Hollywood-type clients when you cleaned pools. Do you call on those people to aid your environmental efforts?

A: Those relationships have been great. I’ve been able to call people back and say, “Hey, I used to be your pool man.” Dustin Hoffman came to one of our fund-raisers when I was creating the Baykeepers. He said that it makes perfect sense, now I just have a bigger pool to take care of.

Q: Does you business background make you a better environmentalist?

A: I am project-oriented like a lot of business people. I know how to handle budgets. That’s often not the case with a lot of environmentalists, who may have passion, but end up thrashing around and not getting much done.

I also know what businesses go through. So when businesses say, because of budgetary constraints, they need more time to implement the changes we are asking for, I am able to analyze their reasons and can either be sympathetic or figure out that they are not telling the truth.

Q: You sued the city of Los Angeles in November for its leaky sewage pipes. How is that coming along?

A: It was something I started at the Baykeepers, and Environment Now is supporting that action.

First there were some negotiations that really didn’t go anywhere, so we went ahead and filed the suit. The city filed to dismiss the case, but we successfully defended ourselves. There will be a hearing on August 3.

But in the meantime, we have been talking with the City Council and the mayor, because ultimately the Bureau of Sanitation works for them. We feel the elected officials have to hear both sides of the issue, and in the end they will have to vote the money to make the repairs especially if they don’t want to go through a very lengthy, expensive legal proceeding and end up like MTA did.

Q: How would you rate Mayor Riordan on environmental issues?

A: I think the mayor has tended to focus on issues that have been perceived to be anti-environment. For example, when there was a fairly draconian air-quality proposal by the AQMD, he opposed it because he was concerned about the effect on business. But at the same time he didn’t stop to think about what could be done as an alternative. That isn’t helpful. But since then he has thought about it and sat on several different panels in an attempt to improve the air quality.

The mayor is an avid bicyclist. Anybody who gets out as much as he does has to be concerned about pollution and the quality of life.

Q: When you were with the Baykeepers, did you ever get threatened by the people you targeted?

A: Sure. We’ve had people threaten us in various ways. We’ve had our share of anonymous letters and midnight threats.

One guy called up after he got a warning letter from us. He said that where he came from in New Jersey, he’d come over with his buddies and break our legs. Luckily, I wasn’t the one who answered the phone because I’d probably have gone toe to toe with him and be dead by now.

But it’s funny to watch how people’s attitudes evolve. If you keep the facts in front of you and keep referring to them, eventually even the most recalcitrant polluter has to admit that they might have done a better job. I can’t remember one case that we worked on (that didn’t result in) a grudging acceptance that maybe the Baykeepers was right.

And to me, that is the whole reason for doing this. Because if you can change perceptions one at a time, then over time you can change an industry and a community and a state.

Q: How did you first become interested in environmental issues?

A: Probably watching Jacques Cousteau as a kid. Somebody once asked Cousteau the same question, and he said that when he was a sailor he used to stand on deck and wonder what was under the hull. Well, the same thing happened to me. When I was a kid, we sailed to Australia and I spent a lot of time on deck wondering the same thing.

My father was a sailor and I spent a lot of time on boats. I’m a licensed captain. I really just came to have a love of the ocean and felt increasingly outraged at seeing it violated.

I think my first awakening that average people can do something about it came in 1991 when I read an article about the San Francisco Baykeepers. And I guess I was at the right point in life. I had just sold a business and was working on a book, and guess it was kind of a mid-life crisis.

Q: You spent a couple of years in Nigeria setting up a recycling program. How did that go?

A: The strategy was not to get people to recycle like we do here. Because the cost of labor is so cheap in that country, we had people go to the rubbish dumps and segregate out the materials we wanted and set up a recycling facility there.

Unfortunately, it was at a time of political upheaval. The World Bank shut down much of its activities and most foreign ambassadors left. So everything pretty much closed down. It was sort of scary, but kind of like watching a movie, especially when you are in the fairly protected, privileged position of someone from another country.

Q: Do you make a decent living off this?

A: It is tough for Los Angeles, given the cost of living and housing. But I guess those are the things that never motivated me. The car I have will get me from A to B as well as the BMW my friend drives. I’ve never wanted the responsibility of having a big house. In fact, until I got married a few years ago I lived on a boat. So in terms of quality of life, it is more important to clean up the air I breathe and the water I dive in.

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