Beat Cops of the Bay 

How the nonprofit group Baykeeper monitors polluters in Bay Area waters.

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"He just flipped us off," a startled passenger says.

Choksi-Chugh, busy prepping a water sampling kit, doesn't even shrug or look up. She is used to receiving accolades and, from deeper pocketed fans, grant money to keep the operation in action, and she is just as accustomed to adversity.

"Yeah, they know who we are," she said.

Beautiful, Clean Coal

The SF Baykeeper putters along the pier of Levin-Richmond, the coal handler that lost the 2012 lawsuit from Baykeeper. Though the company followed orders to buffer its infrastructure and employ new practices with the goal of keeping coal and dust out of the air and water, it remains a concern to Choksi-Chugh. Return patrols, in fact, are a key part of Baykeeper's work to remind would-be polluters that they are still being watched.

While Levin-Richmond is currently the only coal terminal on the shore of San Francisco Bay, some coal backers envision more as part of a black and sooty future that Baykeeper hopes to avoid. The push for more coal exports has been furtive, and Baykeeper first caught scent of it through a story several years ago in a small community newspaper in Utah explaining that four counties had approved $53 million in funding to build a coal terminal in Oakland.

"What the hell do four counties in Utah care about a coal terminal here?" she says.

As Baykeeper's office staff dove into an investigation, uproar followed, with Baykeeper and other groups and local leaders creating a community barrier against the project.

The developer of the project, the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, sued the City of Oakland for stopping the project, and Baykeeper and the Sierra Club are now defending the city in court.

Recently, Baykeeper left court victorious against a company that was mining sand from near Angel Island — essentially stealing it from the public, as the court ruled.

"They fought us tooth and nail, and we fought them hard, and we just won, big-time," she said. "We won because the court ruled, for the first time in the history of the public trust doctrine, which says state resources belong to the state, that sand is a public resource and belongs to the public and must be protected."

The sand that Hanson Marine Operations was taking out of the Bay and selling to construction companies is the same sand that originates in the highlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed. Eventually, it migrates through the Bay, supporting the spawning activity of California halibut and Dungeness crab. Then, it exits the Golden Gate and begins southward, along Ocean Beach, each grain part of huge and complex global sand cycle that scientists are still trying to better understand.

Choksi-Chugh, toughened by past battles, seems ready as ever to take on future ones.

Her experience in environmental litigation and watchdogging shows when she gets talking.

"We have five refineries, one coal terminal and three more being proposed, 86 different stormwater systems that are dumping pollution in the Bay, we have 42 wastewater treatment plants, we have 1,640 industrial facilities," she said. "There's 1,147 Superfund or other toxic sites around the Bay."

She laughs at her own encyclopedic memory.

"I've been doing this a long time," she said.

There are big fish out here to catch, and to later fry in court, but for a moment, Choksi-Chugh becomes fixated on a smaller-scale mission. She grabs a long-handled fishing net from the cabin of the boat and steps outside.

"Can you back up just a few feet?" she asks the skipper, Robert Fairbank, a Baykeeper volunteer of about 10 years' experience.

He reverses the throttle and smoothly steers the boat backward, edging closer to Levin-Richmond's pilings, into the shade cast by the dock above. She reaches out, her feet extended to counterbalance her forward bodyweight and keep from tipping into the green soupy water. She makes a quick jab with her arm, then pulls in the catch of the morning: a small plastic bottle.

Where there is one such item today there would have been five in 2009, when the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board launched its plan to rid the environment of waterborne trash. That's the theory anyway, though it seems unlikely. Less likely is that all trash will be eliminated by 2022, as the water board intends to do, but Baykeeper and other groups will be watching, and counting.

Other trash remains floating in the waters of Lauritzen Canal, and Choksi-Chugh's effort comes off as an act of slapstick futility. She begins to laugh uncontrollably. As the boat motor revs and the SF Baykeeper starts toward the mouth of the small, toxic cove, she returns to the cabin, tosses the bottle into a trash basket to be recycled later.

A passenger jokes, "Mission accomplished!"

She shrugs, laughs and looks ahead.

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