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(The skepticism works both ways. One local activist, who asked that he not be named, says of CoastKeeper, "These guys are all Republicans in Newport. I don't know if I trust them.")
Kennedy, who makes it a point to attend opening ceremonies for every Keeper group, spoke to about 150 locals at a Sept. 11 luncheon in a Newport Beach hotel ballroom. Randy Seton, a Newport Beach native (and Republican) who has been disgusted with ocean pollution for years and now works alongside Brown at CoastKeeper, still laughs at something Kennedy said during the drive upcoast from San Diego. Scanning rows of identical housing developments carved into the hillsides, Kennedy remarked on OC's "cookie-cutter homes and McMansions."
Dennis Kelly, an Orange Coast College marine-science professor, called Kennedy's speech—in which he explained how the Keeper movement got started and how our society's "pollution-based economy" has been a boon for a few at the expense of the many—"very impressive." Roger von Butow, the founder of South Laguna's Clean Aliso Creek Association, was so enthused he immediately bought Cronin and Kennedy's book The RiverKeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment as a Basic Human Right. "It's now my bible," says von Butow. "It's a framework for everything we're doing down here."
During post-speech mingling, Kennedy took Brown aside and said, "Welcome to the brawl."
CoastKeeper had actually introduced itself to Orange County several weeks before the Kennedy visit. Using underwater divers, the group publicly tested Rhine Channel's polluted waters. In the months since, membership has swelled to 150. Seton and the Browns —OC CoastKeeper's full-time staff—recently moved out of the tiny Lido Village office that was Garry Brown's yacht brokerage (he sold out to his partner) and into more spacious digs near Sid's tavern on Old Newport Boulevard. There are now regular meetings. Speakers and newsletters are promised. Grants are pouring in. So are the trouble spots.
"When I went to Santa Monica, I told the guy I hoped I had enough stuff to do for a program in Orange County," Brown says. "Now our plate is so full we're going crazy."
He appeared before the Laguna Beach City Council—at Butow's urging—in October to put the town on notice that CoastKeeper will use all means necessary to clean up the beach town's polluted waters, even if it means tying up Treasure Island, City Hall's pet resort project on the cliffs above the Pacific. That led to a Nov. 16, city-sponsored workshop, where Brown's speech before the gathering was interrupted five times by applause. Told during a break that he should consider running for office, Brown laughed and said, "I've been running away from that my whole life."
His group filed an appeal of a decision by state water-quality regulators to grant a runoff-discharge permit for the Irvine Co.'s Crystal Cove residential development. If CoastKeeper loses the appeal, a suit is likely, according to Brown, who is also taking his case to the state Coastal Commission.
"Our reputation precedes us," he says. "People hear I'm from CoastKeeper, and they say, 'You're the guys who sue everybody.' We certainly don't start out intending to sue anybody. But if it comes to that, we will. We've been asked if we're vigilantes. We say, 'No, but we're activists.' We try to work out all remedies before getting to the point of litigation on any issue."
To demonstrate that litigation is their last resort, Brown notes that his group is working with those same state water-quality officials to sample waters in Rhine Channel and Huntington Harbour.
CoastKeeper's "Aqua Cops"—volunteer-operated boats—scan the waters looking for polluters and respond to reports of illegal dumping logged on a 24-hour hot line (1-877-4CACOAST). Their skippers also educate people about ocean pollution. Events are being organized through the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point and the Newport Beach Nautical Museum. Brown's 15-year-old son will dive underwater with a camera and send images up to a video screen for schoolchildren inside the museum, which is a converted paddle wheeler. CoastKeeper is also funding local kelp reforestation.
"We're doing some really positive things," Brown says. "Hopefully people will not view us as being hard-line but as trying to be constructive when it comes to both education and enforcement."
"They seem to be attempting to address these environmental problems very carefully and doing a lot of homework before getting involved," says Kelly, who provides scientific expertise to CoastKeeper. "Some environmental groups charge out there without knowing the facts. . . . So far, I've been very impressed with everything they're doing. I think there needs to be environmental watchdogs, and they are certainly fulfilling that role right now."
But does that role duplicate what others are already doing, such as the Surfrider Foundation?
"That's the question," says Christopher Evans, Surfrider's executive director, from his San Clemente office. "I think there is some overlap in what we do, although I'm not completely conversant in their mission. Our position is the more help, the better. We've been waiting a long time for others to come and help."
Indeed, CoastKeeper's arrival in Orange County may signal an awareness among people other than surfers—who formed Surfrider in 1984—that our ocean's health has reached a crisis state.