There were no huge Ford Motors banners flapping at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro when Heal the Bay issued its 10th annual "Beach Report Card" on May 24. Indeed, in the glare from sun on sand, you had to squint to see the only sign of the nation's No. 2 automaker at the media event: tiny Ford-logo lapel pins on two or three company reps in attendance.
But for more than five years, Ford has sponsored the Beach Report Card, contributing more than $250,000 to Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay, according to Patrick Rogers, Irvine-based Lincoln Mercury's marketing manager.
On its face, this would seem an unlikely marriage. After cleaning up chronically polluted Santa Monica Bay—with some high-profile help from actor Ted Danson and other celebs—Heal the Bay in recent years has turned its attention to testing beach waters in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange counties. While Heal the Bay tests for fecal-related contamination, the group has also warned of the perils of urban runoff, which dumps not only human and animal waste onto our shores but also chemicals and other cancer-causing stuff.
One contributor to urban runoff is our car-crazed culture. About 22 million barrels of oil enter the world's oceans every year. Materials found in road-related runoff include particles from smog, pavement wear, car-care products, tire wear, oil, grease, iron, lead, chromium, nickel and sulfate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, petroleum hydrocarbons from engines that drip oil can become concentrated at levels that kill aquatic organisms.
The dichotomy between the products Ford makes and the ocean Heal the Bay helps protect was not lost on Rogers. "I think there is a very fine line we have to walk," he said when asked about potential conflicts. But he said the company's environmentalism comes not from the marketing department but the Ford family.
"The family is involved in social responsibility and has set about making a green company," Rogers said. "The top of the company is where something like this needs to come from."
Jokes abound about the eco-unfriendliness of Ford's ultimate behemoth of sports-utility vehicles (SUVs), the Excursion. Rogers conceded that Ford's SUVs and pickup trucks are gas-guzzlers but said their emissions are 40 percent lower than government regulations require, resulting in the equivalent of putting 600,000 hybrid-electric vehicles on the road. Ford has also invested $100 million in fuel-cell technology.
Rogers also pointed to comments by Ford chairman William C. Ford in a "corporate citizenship report" issued at the annual shareholders meeting last month. The 43-year-old great-grandson of the company's founder acknowledged that SUVs contribute more to global warming than cars, emit more smog-causing pollutants, and are dangerous to motorists in smaller cars. Ford will keep churning out SUVs, he said, but it will also explore ways to make them cleaner and safer.
Ford, who became chairman just 16 months ago, told Newsweek his SUV epiphany came after meeting with "advocates for social responsibility, environmental groups and human-rights groups." Weeks before his announcement, Ford Motors withdrew from a coalition that lobbies against restrictions of emissions linked to global warming.
Critics have been quick to note that Ford's newfound greenness comes as SUV sales have flattened out in the U.S. (causing Ford to cut production 25 percent), and all Ford products are taking a beating in Europe, where consumers are more environmentally conscious than their Yank counterparts. But Bill Ford has maintained that it is the future—not current—market that worries him, suggesting that automakers could wind up with reputations as bad as big tobacco's if they don't embrace environmentalism. "If it comes down to what's best for society and the environment, I think Ford will support what's best for society and the environment," Rogers said. "It's tough: We want to be socially responsible, but we also make what consumers demand."
Before accepting Ford as a sponsor, Mark Gold, the nonprofit Heal the Bay's director, and other representatives met with Bill Ford. "We asked him all the tough questions," Gold said. "He's a hardcore environmentalist who is seeing to the slow transformation of a company that historically has not had the best environmental record."
During its tenure as a sponsor, Ford has never meddled in Heal the Bay's affairs, Gold said. "They let us do our own thing," he said. "They like what we do and that we're involved in the beach lifestyle in Southern California, where they have a huge presence. Their commercials show a lifeguard on the beach. That's where this partnership came from."
So how did Orange County do on Heal the Bay's Beach Report Card?
The good news: about three-quarters of the 263 beaches tested in the four counties had passing grades during dry weather, with Orange County having the best overall water quality.
The bad news: three OC beaches made the "Beach Bummer" list of the 10 locations in the four counties with the poorest dry-weather water quality. All are in Dana Point: the San Juan Creek ocean interface (fifth place); Doheny Beach, south of San Juan Creek (sixth); and North Doheny Beach (seventh). The fouled Dana Point coastline represented the longest stretch of polluted beach out of all areas tested, and Doheny was the longest beach that's chronically shitty.