Surfrider Foundation

Rob Caughlan

Rob Caughlan with his surfboardRob Caughlan with his surfboard

Dan Young, Glenn Hening, Tom Pratte, and Steve Pezman started the non-profit Surfrider Foundation in 1984.

Dan Young writes, “I had the idea for a stand-alone surfing enviro group way back in 1971 when Palo Alto developers Hare, Brewer and Kelly started to develop Pajaro Dune in my hometown of Watsonville and tried to shut off public access in a la Sea Ranch. I ran a one-man writing campaign with letters-to-the-editor, which stopped that aspect of the project when I was 18 years old. I had the League of Women Voters call me and offer their under-the-table support.

I went on to study biogeography at SF State and then work for The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service and the Center for Law in the Public Interest.

In 1982, I roped Tom Pratte into working on starting the stand-alone group. About the same time Glenn was working on something also. Steve Pezman called Tom about Glenn having the same idea of a new organization idea and then we all got together for a meeting in August 1984 where the Surfrider Foundation was born. I still have my Attorney Date Books with all the dates.”

Rob Caughlan writes, “I attended a few of the early board meetings and wrote a couple of articles for their first newsletters. At some point they asked if I would be president and I accepted. Tom Pratte, the first Executive Director, told me that they had modeled the group after an organization called Friends of the River. He asked me if I had ever heard of that group and I laughed and told him that Friends of the River started in my living room.”

Rob Caughlan was President for six terms (1984-1991). Under his leadership, the Surfrider Foundation's membership grew from 200 to 25,000 members.

“People think of a surfer organization as a self-canceling phrase,” says Rob Caughlan, “I think I was asked to be president because I have white hair and a couple of neckties.” - People magazine, 1991

Rob Caughlan writes, “Much to everybody's surprise, Surfrider started winning some beach fights. They stopped an Army Corps of Engineers' Breakwater project in Imperial Beach. They protected beach access to Hammonds Reef in Santa Barbara.”

During Caughlan's presidency, the Surfrider Foundation also sued the owners of two paper pulp mills operating on Humboldt Bay’s northern peninsula, on the North Coast of California.

At the mouth of Humboldt Bay is North Jetty – one of the few spots along the California coast where waves of more than 25 feet (from trough to lip) sometimes break. It's a natural draw for surfers – and surfers were getting sick.

The two mills were daily discharging a combined total of 40 million gallons of untreated wastewater straight into the Pacific Ocean.

Why? Because in 1982, following a vigorous lobbying effort by California state and local officials, Congress amended the Clean Water Act with Section 301(m). This amendment specifically waived these two mills (owned by Louisiana-Pacific Corporation and the Simpson Paper Company) from the enhanced, “secondary” treatment that was required by all other mills for discharges into the oceans surrounding the United States.

Thus, by the late 1980's, the area ocean of Humboldt Bay was taking on the color of dark manure. Just below the increasingly foul smelling surface, surfers and beachgoers alike noticed a sludgy undercurrent. Even from the air, the plume formed by the mills' noxious effluent was visible.

Says Rob “Bird Legs” Caughlan, a Surfrider director: “They were using the ocean as a cheap dump.” - Businessweek, 1991

Reports to health officials began piling up; people were getting skin rashes, eye irritation, nausea, and bacterial illnesses like sinus infections and sore throats. Concentrations of dioxin were found to be so high in Dungeness crabs that a state warning against regularly consuming crab caught in the area was issued.

Rob Caughlan writes, “Mark Massara had surfed on the black wave and brought the idea of a lawsuit to us. He did all of the heavy legal lifting for the first couple of years. He rolled the dice and gave up his job at a big law firm and came to work for Surfrider.”

Following a year-long research effort, in May of 1989, the Surfrider Foundation filed suit against the mills using the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision. In a federal district court in San Francisco, they alleged 40,000 violations of the Clean Water Act. Soon after, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice joined their suit.

Nearly two years later, in July 1991, the Surfrider Foundation settled with both defendants. The following September, both Surfrider and the EPA entered into consent decrees with the mills' owners. Under the settlement, both companies agreed to each pay $2.9 million in federal fines to the U.S. Treasury for violating the Clean Water Act.

Rob Caughlan writes, “In the last year of the case, we requested and got the assistance of former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey. McCloskey was the co-founder of the first Earth Day and lead author of the Endangered Species Act. He became our senior guru but wouldn't take any of the credit for our victory.”

The mills were also required to improve their methods (at a cost of more than $50 million) in treating their waste to eliminate toxic hazards. These improved methods included conducting laboratory tests to show that four ocean species (abalone, sea urchins, sand dollars and kelp) could all survive in their discharged waste.

This agreement set an important precedent in environmental regulation. Previously, paper pulp mills and other companies were only required to have chemical discharges meet numerical safety standards. Now their discharges had to be proven safe for living creatures.

Headlines read:

- Businessweek, September 15, 1991

EPA Levies Penalties For Ocean Pollution On Pacific Pulp Mills
- The Christian Science Monitor, September 13, 1991

The surf lobby is making waves
- Half Moon Bay Review, 1991

Surfers Force Pulp Mills to Halt Ocean Pollution
Suit brings about precedent-setting accord.
Firms to spend $56 million in fines, improvements.

- Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1991

Surfers Unite as an Environmental Police Force
- The New York Times, November 29, 1991

Water pollution? Bummer! Surfer solution?
Take the spoilers to court, win $5.8 million.

Righteous, Dudes
- People magazine, December 9,1991

©1993 Paul Duginski

©1992 Paul Duginski

A bonus for Humboldt County was that the companies had to also contribute an additional combined total of $350,000 toward the creation of a recreational facility on federal land located near the mills. From this, the Humboldt Area Recreation Enhancement and Water Quality Fund was created.

Camping facilities, a small conference room, and solar-assisted showers to wash off the sludge were built for the general public. (Simpson also agreed to produce its environmental compliance reports on partially recycled paper.)

Caughlan noted that environmentalists are often criticized for proposing measures that cost jobs and wreak economic havoc on logging communities. In this case, he said, Surfrider has pushed for a plan that will create many jobs and pump millions of dollars into the region. - LA Times, 1991

At the time, in terms of the monetary fines, it was the second largest victory for the Clean Water Act in American history. In terms of violations (40,000), it remains the largest.

“There are a lot of surfers saying, ‘Cowabunga, dude!’” says Caughlan. - People magazine, 1991

In 2007, both Caughlan and Massara were part of a group Vanity Fair magazine dubbed “The Golden State Eco-Warriors” in their 2nd Annual Green Issue:

©2007 Art Streiber

©2007 Art Streiber/Vanity Fair (left to right: John Doerr, Mark Massara, Dorothy Green, Peter A. Darbee, Rob “Birdlegs” Caughlan, Terry Tamminen, Vinod Khosla, Sylvia McLaughlin)

Today, the Surfrider Foundation describes itself as "a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s oceans, waves and beaches" and has over 50,000 members and 90 chapters worldwide.

The fight for clean oceans still goes on:

©1992 Paul Duginski

“The surfer statue in Santa Cruz is dedicated to 'all surfers, past present and future' and surfers get sick when there's sewage in the ocean. According to a 2010 report by Heal the Bay California's 43 wastewater treatment plants discharge 1.35 billion gallons of treated effluent daily into the ocean. I did a lot of reporting in the late 1990s about high bacteria levels at Huntington State Beach. I don't think they ever located the cause of that problem. It ruined one summer season, triggering numerous closures, including over a July Fourth holiday. An Orange County sewage treatment plant has outfalls that go out about four miles at the south end of Huntington State Beach, but the OC officials denied culpability. Then there's winter runoff and constant problems up and down the coast with accidents and sewage spills, probably due to aging infrastructure. So this cartoon is still pretty appropriate today, 21 years later.” - Paul Duginski, 2013