A Sonoma County-based environmental group with a litigious history is suing Lunny Grading and Paving and has announced its intention to file suit against Drakes Bay Oyster Company, both over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.
River Watch, which has sued or threatened to sue 20 local governments or private businesses in 2013 over violations mostly of that federal law, claims the oyster farm is disposing of shells, unwanted shellfish, shellfish parts, bleach, ammonia, cleaning solutions, packaging waste and chlorine into Drakes Estero, a potential wilderness area in Point Reyes National Seashore.
Owner Kevin Lunny, who in frustration pointed out that shellfish mariculture is shown to improve water quality, said the allegations were completely untrue.
A site inspection at the quarry undertaken by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board last month found that Mr. Lunny had rectified non-compliance issues identified in 2011 and was sufficiently protecting water quality.
Inspector Cecilio Felix told the Light that a final determination will take time, with the upcoming rainy season revealing the success of improvements made to sediment and erosion controls.
River Watch attorney Larry Hanson said his group is hoping to conduct its own site visit rather than rely on the control board’s findings.
At Drakes Estero, the county health department regulates all waste, which is channeled into a septic system deposited into a leach field. Mr. Lunny said the farm doesn’t even use ammonia and uses chlorine as a disinfectant in accordance with state health requirements.
After the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin alleged that Drakes Bay was discharging pollutants into the estero in 2007, the water quality control board conducted an inspection and found no violations, Mr. Lunny said.
A 2009 study of existing research by the National Research Council found that although the strong tidal flux in Drakes Estero itself promotes water quality, the oysters could also improve water quality and help eelgrass production by mitigating turbidity and adding nutrients to the water.
Mr. Lunny believes River Watch’s suits are part of a campaign to discredit the oyster farm. “Either they want to collect money, or this is purely political, to force Drakes Bay to spend money to defend a frivolous lawsuit,” Mr. Lunny said. “It’s clear to everyone that these back-to-back attacks by River Watch are connected to the wilderness activists that are trying to harm Drakes Bay… I’m worried that it’s going to be very expensive. We just can’t afford expensive lawsuits.”
Mr. Hanson said the group began looking into Mr. Lunny’s businesses after becoming aware of violations posted by the water quality control board, and hearing from Save Our Seashore. He said the evidence they cite concerning Drakes Bay comes from public records, concerned citizens and the state Coastal Commission.
Multiple newspapers, including the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Register Guard in Eugene, Ore., have reported that River Watch has filed environmental litigation against both private businesses and city governments that have earned the group’s attorney, Jack Silver, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The lawsuits have also brought questions about whether Mr. Silver is inappropriately using environmental law to pressure various groups into lucrative settlements.
Just this year, River Watch settled at least 10 cases it instigated since 2011, earning at least $460,000 in fees as reimbursement for investigative, expert and attorney’s fees, according to a number of settlement documents on the group’s website.
Mr. Lunny expressed concerns that the Clean Water Act would be used in the future in what he deemed a frivolous manner to go after ranchers in and around Point Reyes National Seashore.