In 2011, when Sejal Choksi-Chugh was in her ninth year as an attorney at San Francisco Baykeeper, their staff scientist was on a routine boat patrol and saw toxic petroleum coke dust blowing into the Bay from the Levin-Richmond Terminal, the Bay Area’s only petroleum coke and coal loading facility. When regulatory agencies refused to step in, Baykeeper, as the local nonprofit environmental watchdog, sued the terminal for violating the Clean Water Act and polluting the Bay.
The terminal responded with a tried-and-true defense: attempting to prolong the litigation and exhaust Baykeeper’s resources so the organization would back down. It nearly worked. As the organization faced the second year of contentious litigation and budget strain, Choksi-Chugh and her team came up with a strategic solution that Levin could agree to. The deal reduced the amount of polluting coke and coal Levin discharged into the Bay by 98 percent, yet kept Baykeeper afloat and fighting to protect San Francisco Bay.
For the last four years, Choksi-Chugh has served as the executive director of Baykeeper and made it her mission to ensure the organization never again has to choose between making its budget and protecting the Bay’s health. “We can’t back down to polluters,” she says. “If we back down to one, they’ll all think they can run over us. As executive director, I’ve directed my efforts to create a more robust organizational budget so our attorneys can stand strong in defending the Bay.”
By many measures the Bay is cleaner now than it’s been since the early 1900s. But since 2016 the federal government has proposed rolling back or cutting regulations responsible for those gains, including diverting water before it gets to the Bay and exempting many streams and wetlands in the Bay and Delta from Clean Water Act protections. Enter Choksi- Chugh and her team of attorneys and scientists at Baykeeper: they are the guardians not just of the Bay but of the legal framework that protects it.
“People go about their business and just appreciate the beauty of the Bay, but they don’t realize its health is under threat every single day,” Choksi-Chugh says. “Our scientists look upstream at what’s causing pollution in the first place, and our attorneys strengthen and enforce the laws to hold polluters accountable.”