Additional ELF Victories

Our work consistently improves environmental quality for those most at risk by providing access to information, strategies and enforcement of environmental, toxics, and community right-to-know laws.

Protecting the Environment

ELF represented the Karuk Tribe of California in an action against the California Department of Fish and Game. The Karuk alleged that the Department's permitting program for issuing suction dredge mining permits violates the California Environmental Quality Act as it doesn't provide protections for endangered species of fish, including the Coho Salmon. Suction dredging is a gold mining activity which uses equipment that functions essentially like an underwater vacuum cleaner. The nozzle sucks up the bottom of the river, harms fish and destroys habitat which prevents the future propagation of these endangered fish. During the litigation, in an uncharastic move, the Department unequivocally admitted that Coho Salmon were being harmed by suction dredge mining under the current regulations. Such a bold admission from a Government agency is rare. In the end, the Tribe succeeded in requiring the Department to revise its regulations in order to ensure that endangered species of fish will not be harmed by suction dredge mining.

Over several decades, the Unocal Corporation allowed oil pipelines to leak beneath the scenic beachfront town of Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo. Working with the California Attorney General and other local and state environmental groups, ELF broke the logjam and Unocal was forced to undertake one of the largest underground cleanups in California. Half the town was dug up, cleaned up and put back, better than before, not only removing a toxic environmental hazard, but preserving an historic town for everyone to enjoy. (More from the November 2003 issue of Progressive Engineer.)

California alone among the states strictly prohibits ships from international waters dumping their ballast water into California waters. Such water often contains foreign invasive species that can devastate local marine environments. For instance, over 90 percent of the species in San Francisco Bay are nonnative. Cruise ship lines were prime violators of the law, choosing to put California waters at risk over the modest costs of adopting alternatives. After the State Lands Commission documented the problem but would not act, ELF brought the cruise ship lines into court. Every line agreed to adopt changes in their hardware and/or operations to completely eliminate the problem. Moreover, some of the companies adopted solutions across their entire fleet, worldwide, proving again that California can drive positive environmental change beyond its borders.

For years, the California Parks Department built, operated and expanded an off-road motocross park in the flood plain of the majestic North Fork American River. When plans to double the size of the park’s trails—to the detriment of wildlife, hikers, birders, campers, rafters, equestrians, in fact everyone and everything else in the canyon—ELF joined with the Sierra Club not just to stop the expansion, but to scale back the park, and make the canyon available to everyone. The Parks Department agreed to limit the size of the motocross and only open it half time so that the river and canyon would be available to everyone to enjoy.

Through enforcement of federal laws requiring companies to disclose their use of toxic chemicals, ELF achieved a settlement with a Bay Area manufacturer of plastic bags in which the manufacturer agreed to use recycled materials in their products.

ELF provided support and research assistance to Citizens for a Healthy Ukiah in the grassroots group’s battle to prevent the largest air polluter in Mendocino County from covering up its air pollution emissions as “trade secrets.”

Protecting Communities

Illegal trucking operations threatened the health of a Latino community by kicking up asbestos-laden soil and dust. On behalf of a local citizens’ group, Organizacion de la Communidad de Alviso, ELF filed a class action suit which led to a landmark settlement in September 1994, providing $1.1 million to establish a community fund for medical monitoring, personal injury, property damage, and abatement activities.

ELF assisted the Clean Air Alternative Coalition, a West Oakland community organization, in a civil rights challenge to a proposed freeway in an African-American neighborhood. The defendants agreed in settlement to a number of measures to mitigate the freeway’s harm to the community both during construction and after.

ELF brought an action against a manufacturer for firing a Latina worker for complaining about workplace safety conditions. The company agreed to pay damages and to take action to insure that it was in full compliance with Proposition 65’s warning requirements regarding workplace safety for all workers.

ELF filed suit against Stanford University to reduce, and require warnings of, the threat from lead paint exposure to children in a family housing complex. The university agreed to provide warnings and information to parents, launch an inspection program and to address paint damage complaints, and provide free semi-annual blood tests to children under six.

ELF joined the Legal Aid Society of Los Angeles on behalf of low-income renters whose apartments were being illegally renovated with the intention of driving the tenants out. ELF brought to bear its expertise on lead paint and Proposition 65 to buttress the claims the tenants had and forced a legal and safety-conscious lead abatement and removal program to preserve the housing while protecting the tenants.

Federal and state law expressly prohibit using any terms such as “safe,” “safe for children,” or other phrases when advertising services for pesticides. After all, pesticides are designed to kill. ELF and CalPIRG caught several termite and exterminators using those terms, trying to portray themselves as good for children, health, pets or the environment. The companies were forced to rescind those advertisements and provide positive, truthful information to prospective clients about how to protect themselves, their children and pets from pesticide applications.

ELF worked with other environmental groups to attack the problem of significant diesel exhaust pollution that arose from extensive grocery-store terminal facilities onto adjacent, mostly low-income, communities. The groups documented the high levels of diesel exhaust wafting onto and into homes, and, working with the Attorney General’s office, crafted settlements to give people warnings and to change the way trucks operate, idle, and reduce diesel exhaust.

Protecting Consumers

While Attorneys General around the country were fighting tobacco companies over cigarettes, ELF and the City of San Francisco discovered another insidious tobacco practice: targeting youth to hook them on “smokeless tobacco.” Internal company documents demonstrated that the market for “chew” and “snuff” was dying, until the companies deliberately began targeting youth, especially young men, as the new growth market. The companies used marketing techniques such as “lighter” brands designed to move users up a “ladder” of products as they got increasingly addicted. They introduced wintergreen and cherry flavored brands to move children from candy to more dangerous habits, paid retailers to place the new products at or even in the candy racks, deliberately targeted audiences such as rodeos and youth baseball teams, and hired campus representatives to freely distribute samples at college parties and fraternities. It worked, and led to an epidemic of mouth and other cancers among younger males. Major League Baseball itself was so disgusted it started a massive antitobacco program among its players. ELF and San Francisco forced changes and extracted $2,000,000 that they directed through the Public Health Trust into an antismokeless campaign in rural areas of California to encourage youth at rodeos, stock car races, and county fairs to “Buck Tobacco.”

ELF joined NRDC and the Attorney General in the first-ever attack on lead in drinking water, to force faucet manufacturers to stop using lead alloys in their manufacturing. The companies fought all the way to the California Supreme Court for the right to keep poisoning their customers, but the Court responded with its first ever decision under Prop 65, holding that the law was passed by the people as a remedial measure that must be broadly interpreted to protect public health, and that the water that comes out of your faucet is indeed “a source of drinking water.” The Companies eventually agreed to “get the lead out,” and paid millions of dollars to aid in Prop 65 enforcement. Price Pfister alone paid $2.4 million in penalties, to trust funds for toxics and fees. ELF pursued additional rounds to make sure every manufacturer, importer and retailer stopped selling leaded faucets.

Following their victories in dealing with water faucets, ELF and NRDC successfully pursued legal action to “get the lead out” of water meters, the single-largest brass component in any home plumbing system. After decades of foot dragging, the four major meter manufacturers agreed to a crash course to find an unleaded substitute, and to subsidize purchases by water districts of unleaded alternatives made by smaller, rival companies. The program worked and every meter manufacturer, large and small, now sells unleaded versions, and some companies sell unleaded meters exclusively.

In the course of investigating leaded alloys in water meters, ELF learned that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, uniquely in the nation, had specifications that required lower levels of lead in the alloy used to make its water meters. Schlumberger and other contractors ignored that specification for over ten years, and instead sold Los Angeles meters that were cheaper and had more lead. ELF brought a False Claims Act action, eventually taken over by the City of Los Angeles and the State of California, that resulted in Schlumberger agreeing not to provide the lower lead alloy, but lead free meters, and to do it for free for five years, making the largest water district in the nation the first one to go “lead free.” Other districts around California have now followed suit, helping to catalyze change in an entire industry.

California has strict limits for contaminants allowed in bottled and vended water. (Vended water is water from machines, usually located in or outside grocery stores, that dispense regular tap water that has been filtered for a small fee.) ELF and NRDC tested hundreds of brands of bottled waters throughout the country, and found that 25 percent had some kind of contamination. ELF sued the companies in California that had contamination from lead, arsenic, and bacteria. Every company agreed to clean up their act. Crystal Geyser in particular was an industry leader, and installed filtration systems to remove all arsenic even before the suit was resolved, and has since made generous contributions to protect drinking water throughout the state.

After successfully cleaning up bottled waters, ELF tested scores of vending machines throughout the state, following up on pathbreaking work by the Los Angeles Department of Weights and Measures, and found that roughly one third of the 7,000 vending machines operated by the largest vended water company in the State dispensed water that violated regulatory standards for trihalomethanes, a group of chemicals (byproducts of chlorination) associated with cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. As a result, consumers looking for a better product were actually paying for something no better than their own tap water. The company agreed to conduct a massive study, isolate the problem, and has taken corrective steps in their maintenance regime to finally eliminate the problem.

California law regulates the levels of heavy metals (such as lead and cadmium) allowed in fertilizers, and requires high levels be disclosed on the packages. The Ironite Company could not meet California’s standards, because its fertilizer was being manufactured from mine tailings at a potential Superfund site. Nonetheless, it steadfastly refused to disclose the high levels of toxic metals on labels its packages to warn customers, as the law required. ELF brought Ironite to court, and Ironite—after initially filing frivolous claims that its “free speech rights” were violated if it had to warn about toxic metals—agreed to reformulate its products to get rid of the heavy metals altogether, and to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the effort to clean up California’s waters.

ELF achieved a settlement with major refrigerator manufacturers requiring warnings concerning use of ozone-depleting chemicals.

ELF secured the first-ever settlement requiring dentists to warn patients about mercury exposure from “silver” dental filings. ELF also, in conjunction with the California Attorney General, achieved a significant appellate ruling holding that Proposition 65’s warning requirements must be applied to dental filings.