Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Give Me Plastic Bags Or Give Me Death?

Our split decision on Monday night to pursue ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura apparently struck a cord with some folks. The email responses I’ve gotten since then have ranged from “I’m disappointed in you” to “Don’t you have anything better to do?” to “You’re friggin’ nuts” to “Give me plastic bags or give me death!” As the last comment would suggest, many of these comments seem to have come from self-described Tea Party activists. A lot of the comments were very thoughtful and clearly deserve a response.

First, here’s what happened Monday night: After a proposed statewide law on the issue fell apart, Councilmembers Morehouse and Brennan asked us to approve the idea of having the staff prepare a ban on single-use plastic bags in Ventura. I indicated my support (which I will explain below). Councilmembers Andrews and Monahan and Deputy Mayor Tracy indicated their opposition. Councilmember Weir said she would not support a ban, but would support directing the staff to talk to other cities and agencies and return with some options for how we might reduce single-use plastic bags here in Ventura. That motion passed 4-3. So we didn’t ban plastic bags, nor did we – as many emailers seem to think – approve spending money on some kind of study or other. We asked the staff to come back with options.

A lot of emailers have expressed concern about having their personal freedom taken away through a ban on plastic bags – sort of implying that it is the manifestation of an intrusive “nanny state” approach by the City Council and basically just the latest left-wing enviro-nazi fad.

Let me first say that I’m usually pretty skeptical about buying into the latest environmental fad. Remember a few years ago when the entertainment industry was in a tizzy over the supposedly wasteful long CD covers? I thought that was pretty amusing – here are Hollywood musicians, who consume enormous amounts of electricity recording and playing their music and still use lots of plastic to manufacture and shrink-wrap the CDs, thinking that if only they make shorter boxes the environment will be saved. So I’m not easily taken in by this stuff.

Second, I don’t take imposing regulation on our constituents lightly. A lot of emailers have said that we should allow the consumer and the market to prevail. I agree that the market is a great thing – most of the time the market is right, and we should use the market to deal with our problems whenever we can. But sometimes, the market has a hard time recognizing other, non-economic issues. That’s when the government creates regulation – to protect other things that are important to the common good but that the market isn’t good at dealing with. This might be something as simple as a stop sign or a speed limit (both of which are examples of government regulations that take away our personal freedom) or something as complicated as environmental protection.

There’s no question that plastic bags are cheap and useful. But if they are floating around our town – and, especially, landing in our rivers and our oceans – they can be harmful. Just as important, their presence in our rivers and watercourses can expose our community – and our taxpayers – to the possibility of significant financial fines from the Regional Water Quality Control Board. And that’s the most important reason to think about ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura.

The regional water board oversees the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act. Because Ventura is located in a beautiful but environmentally fragile place – along the beach and between two environmentally sensitive rivers – the board keeps a very close eye on us. This costs us a lot of time and it also costs us a lot of money.

Here’s an example: Our wastewater treatment plant discharges water – very clean water – into the estuary at the mouth of the Santa Clara River, near Ventura Harbor. But discharging treated wastewater into an estuary is not typically something that is permitted under the Clean Water Act. So we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year – money that comes from the water and sewer payments you make every other month – proving to the regional board that the water we discharge is really, really clean. Whenever we do have a minor blip and polluted water is accidentally discharged into the estuary, we pay a big fine – thousands of dollars a day. And now, a group of environmental organizations have sued us in an effort to get us to find some other way to discharge the water rather than putting it in the estuary. This lawsuit will cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend and most likely millions to settle.

As I say, this kind of thing is just a fact of life. It’s part of the “cost of doing business” of being Ventura.

Now, the regional water board has instituted a new set of regulations implementing the federal Clean Water Act that seeks to reduce the amount of trash and other pollution in the Ventura River -- to zero. Under the new stormwater permit that affects Ventura and neighboring cities, we are expected to take all reasonable measures necessary to eliminate all trash in the river. If there’s trash in the river, we have to pay fines – with money that will come from our General Fund, meaning we will have less money for police officers and firefighters and park maintenance workers.

And just to give you an example, a couple of weeks ago when volunteers from California Lutheran did the big river-bottom trash cleanout, they came up with more than 12 tons of trash.

In order to cut down on the trash, the City will spend close to $1 million over the next few years putting “trash excluders” on the storm drains – essentially, traps that keep the trash from flowing down the storm drains into the ocean and the river. But trash excluders don’t stop plastic bags from floating around until they land in the river. And plastic bags that get stuck in the trash excluders can interfere with the entire storm drain system by blocking the water from flowing.

In other words, we will face major financial penalties – penalties we would have to pay for with taxpayer funds -- if we don’t eliminate trash in the river. And plastic bags are big part of the problem that are especially difficult to deal with in other ways. That’s why we have to look at ways to reduce their use – including the possibility of banning them.

Now, critics might say that the regional water quality regulators shouldn’t be so hard on us; or shouldn’t focus on trash in the river; or should find other ways to clean up the water. This may be true, but that’s not something we at the city level can do a whole lot about. If we fight or try to ignore these regulations, that’s probably going to cost us far more of your tax money than complying. (This is a lesson the Casitas Municipal Water District has learned the hard way in fighting federal regulators over the installation of a fish ladder farther up the Ventura River to accommodate the now-endangered steelhead trout.)

So, to those who say they are disappointed in me, I say: How disappointed will you be when I come and ask to raise taxes so we can afford to pay all these fines to the Regional Water Quality board? To those who ask if I don’t have anything better to do, I say: I don’t have anything better to do than clean up our environment and conserve our taxpayers’ money in the process. To those who say I’m friggin’ nuts, I say: It would be nuts to pretend that we do not have lots of potential financial liability here.

To those who say, Give me plastic bags or give me death, I say: At least tie your plastic bags up before you throw them into the river so nobody else chokes to death on them. Because if you don’t want regulation, then you’ve got to take individual responsibility for your actions.