River Watch Sues Willits. Again.
by Bruce Anderson, February 16, 2011
A one-man environmental group is suing Willits.
The one man is Jack Silver. His solo environmental group is called River Watch. River Watch looks pretty good on paper, with sub-groups and a bunch of Silver's friends functioning as his boards of directors.
By suing or threatening to sue the municipalities of the NorthCoast for clean water work, the glib Sonoma County attorney has done quite well for himself, less well for the environment. He went after Willits years ago, emerging from that flurry of threats against the North County town with fat legal fees for himself, nothing for Willits that Willits wasn't already doing.
Silver is going after Willits again, this time over alleged contamination from an underground fuel tank dug up in 1999. The Occidental-based lawyer is suing under the federal Clean Water Act, alleging that the dug up tank is still polluting an aquifer.
The suit seeks the maximum penalty allowed by law — $37,500 per day for the past five years or some $68 million to get the site cleaner than clean. Those are big numbers, but Silver will take a relative pittance to drop his suit and go away.
And Willits will pay him to go away because Willits doesn't have the money to go to court to defend itself. Willits will have to settle because it can't afford to spend many thousands of public dollars defending itself in court.
In 2002, Silver threatened Willits with a multi-million dollar suit but settled for his fees of $40,000 and a $100 penalty.
This is what Silver does. Threatens to sue for millions, settles for a fast forty or fifty thousand for himself. Silver has done so well suing small towns like Willits and big towns like Santa Rosa he now has a second attorney to help him keep up. His man, Jerry Bernhaut, has just met with Willits' representatives with the usual offer: You pay us up front and we won't sue you.There are 37 open investigations for leaking underground storage tanks in Willits, but Bernhaut and River Watch claim, as reported in an excellent piece by Linda Williams of the Willits News, that “the really high contaminant levels and the proximity to Broaddus Creek attracted the attention of one of our members.”
How do Bernhaut and Jack Silver's paper enviro set-up, River Watch, know that?
They haunt the offices of State Water Quality, pawing through the files for possible violations.
Is Willits deliberately ignoring the proximity of Broaddus Creek to possible contaminants?
Willits has made extensive and conscientious efforts to clean up the site, efforts that are ongoing but, technically, a violation of the Clean Water laws exists.
And here come Hi Ho Silver and Bar The Door Bernhaut with just enough legal wiggle room to…..well, threaten Willits with a Clean Water lawsuit.
Silver's done it before. He sees Willits as an easy mark, a fatted public calf he can milk every few years.
Shaking Down Willits, a Chronology
• August, 2001 — Jack Silver, River Watch's Attorney and member of River Watch's board of directors, sends a letter of notice of intent to file suit against the City of Willits about deficiencies at the town's sewage plant. Silver deploys a boiler plate violation notice without ever meeting with anybody from the City of Willits. The letter does not specify the violations River Watch is alleging.
• End of August/Beginning September the City of Willits looks for help from the Willits Environmental Center. The Willits Environmental Center asks Jack Silver if the Willits Environmental Center can be included in the process that will resolve the alleged violations. River Watch is not interested in including Willits' enviros.
• September 7, 2001 — Jack Silver, Lynn Hamilton (River Watch's Executive Director), and Robert Rawson (River Watch consultant), meet with the City of Willits, presumably to find out what the City of Willits is doing about the violations at the sewage plant, which Willits itself had reported to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. At this meeting, of Willits, assuming River Watch is acting in good faith, invites River Watch to tour the wastewater treatment system and to review Willits' documents regarding the current system and the new system the town is building.
• September 17, 2001 — Due to River Watch's aggressive, hurry-up approach to the alleged sewage violations, the City of Willits works out a deal that allows Silver more prep time before River Watch files suit against them, a move that looks suicidal in retrospect.
• October 29, 2001 — Silver, Hamilton, and Rawson get a tour of Willits' wastewater treatment system and learn more about Willits and the nature of Willits' violations.
• December 13, 2001 — Silver hits the City of Willits with a boilerplate list of Clean Water Act violations and demands that Willits pay $50,000 in remediation funds in lieu of penalties and $40,000 attorney fees and costs. Silver's demand letter fails to address in any meaningful way specific violations. In fact, the demands are so poorly crafted that some of the points in the “remediation” would be impossible because the governing agencies would not grant Willits the necessary permits to do them.
• December 21, 2001 — The City of Willits, still naively assuming that River Watch is acting in the public interest, arranges to have the consulting firm designing their new wastewater treatment system to explain it to Silver, Hamilton, and Rawson. (Willits had employed the same firm that designed Arcata's famously efficient natural wastewater treatment system to design its wastewater treatment system.)
• January 2, 2002 — Silver asks for a tremendous amount of water and sewage-related information from the City of Willits, adding that he would like to “finalize a settlement of this case no later than mid-March.”
• January 22, 2002 — Willits supplies documents to Silver and assures Silver they'll send more.
• January 23, 2002 — Willits City Council invites Silver to come to a City Council meeting to discuss a settlement with the City of Willits at a City Council meeting open to the public. Silver refuses.
* * *
The City of Willits indeed had minor violations of the Clean Water Act. For instance, Willits couldn't meet the dilution factor (100:1) required by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. Though true, the ratio is hardly life-threatening. Silver grandly stated that the City was doing a good job in the circumstances, that it would be impossible not to have some violations.
River Watch failed to determine if any of the violations actually constituted a danger to the streams in and around Willits because River Watch had issued its demands before most of the information had been collected. Silver clearly desired a quick settlement without all the hassle of a lot of paperwork back-up necessary to an actual lawsuit against the town. Essentially, he was saying, “Give me the money and I'll go away.”
Silver's suggested “settlement” proposal to Willits was similarly vague and, of course, came with Silver's typically excessive legal fees into the non-bargain.
River Watch does not use “remediation” funds to fix violations. Silver funnels the money to other nebulous environmental groups affiliated with River Watch, e.g., those that just happen to share board members with River Watch, like the “Community Clean Water Institute.”
Community Clean Water Institute are the same people as River Watch, and both groups, at the time Silver sued Willits and Fortuna, were based in a post office box in Occidental.
When Silver swooped down on Fortuna with cash and carry allegations of violations of the Clean Water Act, Fortuna soon paid him his usual Go Away legal fees of 40-50,000 dollars plus another fifty or so in “remediation” fees that morphed into $15,000 per year for five years from the City of Fortuna to the Community Clean Water Institute, a paper subsidiary of River Watch.
• Who and what exactly was River Watch in 2001? They were not found listed among any other credible environmental organizations, e.g., International River Networks (www-irn-org).
• River Watch's own newletter confirmed they do not work with the communities they are saving from themselves; they do not remediate.
• River Watch did not have a dues-paying membership, but had collected some 500 people interested in joining River Watch based on River Watch's highly misleading description of itself. The names of these dupes are occasionally brandished to make it appear that River Watch is a kind of liquid Sierra Club.
• River Watch should be directing their cash-driven ire at the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, although such a re-direction would not provide River Watch and Silver the sweet monetary return Silver's lucrative interpretations of the Clean Water Act pay him.
• River Watch has always refused to meet in public forums to discuss their entirely self-alleged environmental work.
River Watch is a letterhead environmental with a mail drop in Occidental, West Sonoma County. It consists mostly of a lawyer named Jack Silver, and now Bernhaut, and Silver's handpicked board of directors. River Watch is organized as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt, do-good-for-the-earth entity whose primary benificiary is Jack Silver.
River Watch claims to be commited to the Clean Water Act. If you believe the nebulous group's mission statement it exists solely and selflessly to ensure that our water remains safe to drink and that our sewage is rendered harmless.
Incorporated in 1996 as a non-profit, River Watch claims to be keeping our drinking water potable by suing, or threatening to sue, public agencies guilty of shoddy water practices.
Silver, or his surrogates, haunt water regulatory agencies like the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board office in Santa Rosa for the latest inspection reports on municipal water supplies. Inevitably, Silver, or one of his agents, finds minor violations, which Silver then brandishes in the nonplussed faces of city councils and says, “Pay me and River Watch to go away or pay your lawyers to fight us in court.”
If Water Quality would make public agencies pay the small fines for the violations their own inspectors discover, Mr. Silver and River Watch would be out of business.
The law says public water agencies can't be sued twice for the same violations. Public agencies like Fortuna and Willits, to name two Silver victims, find themselves in the peculiar position of begging Water Quality to fine them so they won't be forced to pay Silver and River Watch what amounts to protection money. Water Quality, however, seems overly-reluctant to impose penalties, even token penalties.
Congressman Mike Thompson once made some noise about closing the loophole, but noise was the extent of Thompson's efforts.
Most public water agencies and their sponsoring municipalities pay one way or the other. If they settle with Silver and River Watch without a court fight, they pay Silver and River Watch, typically a minimum of forty to fifty thousand dollars in legal fees plus another forty or fifty for remediation as defined by Silver's subsidiary, Community Clean Water Institute.
If a municipality chooses to fight River Watch in court they also lose even if they win because they're out large legal fees. Most municipalities pay Silver to go away. Silver then allegedly distributes some of the proceeds to River Watch to do good things for the environment. Look real hard and you might find one.
Fortuna tried to fight Silver and River Watch but gave up when their legal bills grew larger than the amount Silver and River Watch had first demanded to not sue. Fortuna wound up paying Silver the hundred thousand dollars in fees he demanded when Fortuna was forced into settlement with him. Half that amount went to River Watch to do vague environmental good “in the Eel River basin.”
The good River Watch did?
Near as we can tell because River Watch isn't what anyone would describe as forthcoming, River Watch had its sister non-profit, the equivalently bogus Community Clean Water Institute, plant a few trees on the river bank.
Fortuna asked to see the particulars of the hundred thousand public dollars worth of billable legal work Fortuna was compelled to pay Silver for.
Silver told Fortuna it was none of Fortuna's business. And that was that.
The Justice Department subsequently denounced Silver's fees in the Fortuna case as “excessive.”
The person who answers Clean Water's phone seems to regard inquiries as impertinences, and becomes audibly indignant when asked to provide Clean Water's bona fides.
Also in 2001, Silver and his River Watch shakedown crew had notified the City of Ferndale that its sewage treatment plant was operating in violation of the Clean Water Act.
Silver gave Ferndale 60 days to either negotiate an agreement to pay him and River Watch and Community Clean Water or pay a lot of public money to fight River Watch in court.
Ferndale's beleaguered sewage treatment man, Randy Jensen, soon told the Associated Press, “We've spent astronomical amounts of money to make improvements here. We don't have anywhere near the number of violations these people claim. We've been making a good effort to get into total compliance with the law, but we only have so much money.”
Ferndale settled. It was much less expensive to pay Silver to go away than it was to fight him.
In 2004, Silver alleged that Ukiah's sewer plant was polluting the nearby Russian River. River Watch said aging sewer lines “may be leaking, increasing levels of pollutants possibly entering the river.”
A large encampment of drunks and drug addicts did indeed constitute a hazard to the Russian River, but dope heads and drunks usually aren't sue-able.
Silver's bogus suit against Ukiah also alleged that the city was “inadequately monitoring for groundwater contamination, including pollutants at storage ponds adjacent to the river.”
Which was straight-up untrue.
River Watch v. Ukiah demanded that the city remedy the alleged problems or pay $27,500 per violation per day for violating the Clean Water Act. The City would also be ordered to pay River Watch's attorneys' fees and costs in the lawsuit, which of course is the true reason for Silver's “concern” for the Russian River.
Ukiah paid Silver $50,000 to go away.
River Watch: An Exchange
KSRO Newstalk 1350 (AM) Santa Rosa, Pat Thurston Show, Thursday, March 14, 2002. Guests: Jack Silver, River Watch; Bruce Anderson, Anderson Valley Advertiser.
Pat Thurston: You may have read recently in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat an article by Mike Geniella about an environmental organization called River Watch. There was also a sidebar article. And today the PD editorializes about River Watch. If you are a person who reads the Anderson Valley Advertiser, this was a story that Bruce Anderson wrote several weeks ago. I don't know that there was anything additional in the Press Democrat. But right now we have Jack Silver joining us in studio. Jack is the founder of River Watch. Is that right Jack?
Jack Silver: Co-founder.
Thurston: Co-founder. And you are an attorney, right?
Thurston: And Bruce Anderson, editor and publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, joins us via telephone. He wrote that piece.
Thurston: Nice to talk with you, Bruce. And thanks for joining us. Now, Bruce, you started this with some allegations which were published long before the Press Democrat did. In your article you essentially accuse River Watch, and more specifically Jack Silver, of being a shakedown artist. Would you explain those accusations?
Anderson: Yes. And I should say preliminarily that the PD typically rides down out of the hills a month or so after the battle to shoot the wounded. So I have a certain amount of sympathy for Mr. Silver. He must be full of arrows at this point.
Silver: I'm doing just fine, Bruce.
Anderson: Glad to hear it.
Silver: Thanks for your concern.
Anderson: But yes, I think that Mr. Silver, like certain other bogus environmental groups, has found a loophole in the law that really doesn't have anything to do with environmental regulation, or protecting us from derelict water agencies, or keeping our water clean, or saving trees, or any other specific environmental good. By writing demand letters for offenses that are mostly minor, or if they're not minor, they're in the process of being cleaned up by cash-strapped public agencies, and very poor municipalities like Willits, for example, is shooting the proverbial fish, highly insured fish, in a small barrell. It's not as if these agencies are deliberately poisoning our water, or are knowingly and negligently allowing our water to be poisoned. So Mr. Silver rides into town and says, “Give me 40, 50 thousand bucks and you won't have to litigate this. He knows, and the City of Willits knows, that they don't have the money for lengthy court battles. So, typically, or at least in the past, a number of public agencies have paid up. And Mr. Silver has gotten his quick $40 or $50 grand, and another $40 or $50 grand has gone to his co-non-profit, the Clean Water Institute, to allegedly do a little environmental work on their own. So I don't know how else you could describe what this guy does than shakedown. Write a letter…
Silver: Truthfully, and factually, which you're not doing…
Anderson: Then you should sue me.
Silver: I'm not interested in suing you, Bruce. I'm not interested in following the conservative agenda of dividing the liberals to get them to fight amongst themselves. I think that it's both unnecessary and counterproductive. This is the first time we've spoken. That's right? You've never spoken to me before, right?
Anderson: That's right. I tried to call the Clean Water Institute…
Silver: I'm not involved with the Clean Water Institute.
Anderson: Same post office box in Occidental.
Thurston: Well, Jack, let's get to some of the things that Bruce is alleging here. He called you a shakedown artist. Are you a shakedown artist?
Thurston: You have filed lawsuits against public agencies and asked them to settle with you and you made a pretty penny off those settlements, right?
Silver: … I don't know how you characterize a pretty penny. We settled a suit with Santa Rosa, and I probably, after paying co-counsel, and staff and all the costs, probably made about $50 an hour. So I'm not sure what a pretty penny is. In some circumstances, that's a pretty penny. As an attorney, working for a defense firm, I'd probably make about four times that much. But since I'm not defense minded, I don't. So…
Thurston: When you reach a settlement with a public agency that you've litigated against, as part of that settlement do you absolutely positively require something that has bettered the environment? Are the people in the community better off than they were before you litigated against their public agency?
Silver: Yes. For several reasons. The first thing we always look for and the first thing we ask for is abatement of anything that they're doing. I wouldn't characterize the violations we found to be minor. When you find minor violations in the records of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and then you go in and do an audit on these places, you find horrendous practices that are not even covered by any inspection that's ever been done. That's what we get an abatement for. The monetary settlement, the penalties and the fees, we feel are absolutely necessary as a deterrent. If all these people did was wait around until somebody caught them in what they're doing, and this just made them fix it, which is what a lot of them do, it never has any incentive of being pro-active. Us being watch dogs out there and being able to jump on them and extract something that should be painful for them does teach them that they need to take care of this upfront. And not put the burden on the environment.
Anderson: That sounds wonderful. But I defy you… Well, perhaps in the Santa Rosa case he can name these sorts of egregious, major violations that are going unaddressed. But there's none up here in the case of Willits that I know of. What he's done in the case of Willits is write them a demand letter saying, 'Pay or I will sue you.' And he tracks these so-called violations down at the Water Quality Control office. They're the ones who do the field work and write these things up in the first place. The violations either don't exist, or they're in the process of remediation, or they're so minor as to not warrant a violation in the first place. The state is derelict here, really. The state should be doling out the fines, not individual private attorneys.
Thurston: Isn't that the thing that allows you, Jack, to file the lawsuit? The state, if they don't impose some sort of financial penalty, then you, as a private citizen, can file a lawsuit and demand some sort of money?
Silver: Not exactly. In our point of view, I am the state. We are the state. The state is us. If people believe that the agencies and the government are going to take care of these problems, then they should believe what they read, too. Which I can't encourage them to do. Bruce, have you been to the plant in Willits? Have you looked at it?
Anderson: I've seen the plant in Willits, yes. I've never been afraid to drink the water in Willits.
Silver: Do you know they discharged during winter their treated effluent into the field next door that runs off into the creek and that it's non-monitored?
Anderson: We're not drinking the creek water. And it is monitored.
Silver: But the creek water is water for habitat for salmonids, and…
Anderson: Santa Rosa's been using the lower Russian River as sort of a leach field for years. And Brenda Edelman has addressed that for many years.
Silver: And that goes out in the ocean.
Anderson: The violations in the Russian River are much more egregious than anything that's happening in Willits. Willits is not doing that deliberately. Willits was in the process of remediating that particular problem.
Silver: Ok. If somebody is a child molester. If they're just not really doing it as bad as somebody else, we should leave them alone? I mean, come on now! The other thing is that everybody…
Anderson: There's a difference between a child molester and drinking water.
Silver: I don't consider disposing of this material into the creek a minor thing. It may be that they don't drink the water, but it is habitat. And it is degrading water for other creatures. I don't look at the fact that the earth is only here for us humans.
Thurston: Is it true that the City of Willits is in process of trying to address this problem? That they're already trying to correct it?
Anderson: Of course! They're not lunatics.
Silver: They're not addressing this problem. They deny that they do this. And when they do talk about it they talk about this wetlands project that they're trying to put in in the next six years that would be put in this flood plain. We're not dealing with that part of it, but we don't believe that even what they're planning to do will address the problem. What we want is monitoring. Maybe what they're doing has no harm on there, but if they don't know and they won't look, and they won't even monitor, that's when we start getting concerned because we say they're not monitoring because they're afraid they're going to find violations.
Thurston: But if you're asking them to monitor… Why do you…? I mean I have a copy of the letter you sent to Willits, that was republished in the AVA, in which you ask for $50,000 in remediation funds in lieu of penalty, and $40,000 in attorney fees and costs. That's a lot of money for a little town like Willits.
Silver: Let me explain that.
Anderson: That certainly leaves them a lot less money to do the remediation that Mr. Silver is allegedly requesting. And that's the problem with it. And the remediation part of that nearly $100,000 fee goes to Mr. Silver and his paper board at Clean Water Institute, and then where does the money go?
Silver: Let me explain that.
Anderson: The Clean Water Institute hasn't done very much, if it's done anything at all in the way of remediation.
* * *
Silver: The letter to Willits was a request. It's not uncommon when you're suing someone for them to know what you want. That letter was sent in response to that. It was not intended to be an absolute demand. Secondly, given the response that we've had from the public, money is off the table now. And we told Willits that. We sent them a letter that said as far as penalties, which we translate into remediation funds, and attorneys fees, we'll let the judge decide that. That way it's out of our hands. And let's focus on the real concern which is the water quality issue.
Anderson: The real concerns arose when Willits said, Yeah, we'll talk to you about all this stuff, but we want to do it in public, in open session so that everybody involved can sit in on it. At that point Mr. Silver backed off his shakedown letter.
Silver: Let me respond to that.
Anderson: That's the chronology of events.
Silver: You're mischaracterizing what occurred.
Anderson: No I'm not.
Silver: We paid…
Anderson: I want to respond to the insult here about serving the right-wing agenda, that I wasn't able to respond to.
Silver: I didn't say you were. I just said that when we bicker…
Anderson: That was the context. That's always…
Silver: That was a way of expressing it.
Anderson: What always happens when there are these mercenary environmental groups who basically exist to serve themselves their critics are characterized as somehow right-wing, or serving the right-wing agenda… It happens up here all the time. We have the Trees Foundation, which is almost entirely a self-interested group. When you look at the Trees Foundation, an umbrella group, you find all kinds of disparate interests, but the same individuals, all of whom are personally profiting from their non-profit status as public do-gooders. So what is happening here on the Northcoast, particularly, which I'm most familiar with, is that the environmental movement has become a jobs program, a haven for opportunists of all kinds as the environment itself deteriorates before our very eyes. There's an enormous contradiction between what people say they're doing and what they're actually doing. And then when they are criticized, these beautiful people, who by self-definition are good and righteous, when they're criticized the critic becomes the right-winger or serving the right-wing agenda. And so forth.
Thurston: Jack, you said that Bruce got the Willits chronology wrong. Did you refuse to meet in public in the Willits situation?
Silver: I think that meeting in public is a good idea. The problem that we have right now is that we're just beginning our investigation. We had some meetings with them. We had some access to the public records. After we filed suit we had the right to get documents that we weren't able to get before that. And we would like to have a meeting, but we want to wait until we have sufficient information so it would make the meeting worthwhile and we'd be able to present information that the public would find more important than the, uh, information we have currently.
Thurston: Joining us now is Miles Ferris. Miles is director of utilities for the city of Santa Rosa. Miles, I understand you were involved in the lawsuit by River Watch against Santa Rosa.
Ferris: Three of 'em.
Thurston: Were these unfounded lawsuits?
Silver: They weren't all River Watch suits, all three of them.
Ferris: Well, Jack, I somewhat disagree. It was Jack Silver that did it. By the way Jack…
Silver: (illegible) did it too.
Ferris: And that's your brother Paul, isn't it?
Thurston: What did you say?
Ferris: I said I think your co-counsel that you pay is your brother Paul.
Silver: No. He's one of them. We work with the Northern California Environmental Defense Center. There are a number of attorneys there. So you might see them on, on, on… on our letterhead sometimes in the pleadings.
Thurston: What about the suits against Santa Rosa, Miles? Do you think these were unfounded?
Ferris: Yes! One of them we went all the way to the Ninth District Court, and we prevailed. And the others were settled.
Thurston: Why were they settled?
Ferris: After the last suit I calculated how much was spent on the lawsuit. The worst part of it is that when you're embroiled in one of these things you absolutely lose your staff time and you probably lost 18 months of momentum in the department to make things better. You're being charged with hundreds of thousands, and millions and millions of dollars of potential liability that you can't ignore. So it becomes your primary focus to defend. And when you're all done and everything is said and done, you have really lost not only money, but more importantly you've lost your people for a tremendous period of time.
Thurston: What was the lawsuit you settled with River Watch about? What did it concern? Were you in the wrong?
Ferris: Were there violations? Minor violations. They were all in my opinion very minor. Yet the argument that is made that the reason the Water board hasn't gotten around to fining you or something, therefore you need a bounty hunter to come in and charge off with the bad guys and give them a fair and impartial trial and hang them with a rope whether they like it or not.
Thurston: Do want to respond that that, Jack?
Silver: I like Mr. Ferris. I like working with him. And we do disagree on these. However, the last suit of Santa Rosa that we won on we had found… first of all, we filed suit, and then the Regional Water Quality Control Board filed suit and they went through their suit and then found them to be in a certain amount of violation, which we then removed from our suit. But the thing that got them to the bargaining table, the thing that got them to settle is that the US District Attorney's office wrote an opinion that we were right and that they were violating the Clean Water Act by discharging irrigation water and allowing that to run off into the Laguna without monitoring and without a proper permit for that.
Thurston: So there was a settlement that was reached with River Watch. As a result of that settlement, were there changes in your policies or practices or procedures that you did in how this water was being discharged or being monitored? Was that part of your agreement in the settlement?
Ferris: No. First of all, what they won on they didn't win. We settled. We settled mainly because I made the decision, along with the counsel and the board, that in essence we're a public utility and I can tell you it wasn't easy to get them to go along with the settlement, but we have so much going on in the department in terms of building and maintenance, the wastewater transmission project, we're doing major changes in the treatment plant, not only that we're doing major technological changes to the entire utilities department, and we're spending several million dollars on it… To lose momentum in those areas to go to court and lose… it would cost us more to fight and win than it would cost to just settle.
Thurston: But was this a matter of all you had to do to get River Watch to back off is to pay them off?
Ferris: Well… We settled a lawsuit. I'd hate to characterize Jack and Paul as, uh, uh… you know, taking cash just to go away. Because, I… I really think Jack has …
Thurston: But that's what it sounds like! If you were involved in some sort of violation, but there was nothing… if all they wanted was money, if they didn't say, And you have to change this and you said, Ok, we'll change this and give you money, then it was! Then it was for money! It was doing it for money! It was getting River Watch off your back by paying them off!
Ferris: Yeah. Let me say, I can't look into Jack's mind. I have no idea.
Thurston: But is that what happened? There was no change, only money?
Ferris: That's what happened.
Thurston: Jack, respond to that. It does sound like extortion!
Silver: The, uh, money that, you know, that we get… You know, the Regional Water Quality Control Board has to step in and take care of this. We worked very closely with the Regional Water Quality Control Board on this case. And we uncovered things that they had done and they were up for some renewals on their permit, and some of the process that they had, the Regional Water Quality Control Board approved to us, that they would take care of those. In those circumstances we want the agency to have the opportunity to do enforcement when they are the agency that should be doing enforcement.
Thurston: But your lawsuit didn't do anything for Santa Rosa. It didn't do anything for the quality of the water. Your lawsuit brought you money.
Silver: … I don't agree with that.
Thurston: Then what did it do for people? What did it do for the quality of the water?
Silver: There was another $20,000 that went out in projects and that was already published in the Sebastopol paper, and if anybody wants to get a copy of that, that was done with a joint committee between the city of Santa Rosa and the RWPC organization and some representatives there…
Thurston: Brenda Edelman.
Silver: Yes. And there were several changes that were made by the Regional Water Quality Control Board that were part of their ACL, the administrative civil liability action, and also part of their interpretation and, uh, monitoring changes that they made to update Santa Rosa's permit. So it was unnecessary for us to put those also into a settlement agreement when the Regional Water Quality Control Board was already taking care of them. But they didn't take care of them until we uncovered it.
Thurston: You're saying it wasn't stipulated in the suit, but you're saying as a result of your filing the suit they did that, so then when you settled the suit all you needed at that point was money.
Silver: Well, I wouldn't characterize it that way. But at the end of the day, that's what has elapsed.
* * *
Anderson: I'd like to make a few quick points here: Mr. Silver is being disingenuous in many ways. The fundamental problem is that public agencies, as we all know, carry massive insurance policies, and they're eminently suable. They pay off all the time to make attorneys and problems go away. School districts do it. Even big private media groups do it. They carry these huge deductibles. And Mendocino County does it. For instance, Mendocino County paid the late Judi Bari a fast $5,000 not to pursue an alleged false arrest suit. Bari's charges were totally bogus, which I happen to know because I was there and saw the episode myself. So lots of public agencies pay off rather than engage in expensive litigation. The other part of this particular problem is that the non-profit laws and the charity laws in the state of California are loose to the point of non-existence. There's no enforcement! So these phony groups, these basically mercenary environmental groups, these mercenary do-good groups of all kinds, set up phony non-profits with paper boards and proceed to enrich themselves and their friends. Is $50 an hour a pretty penny? Yes. When you consider the fact that working people would be clicking their heels if they made half that an hour. Until the fairly recent past, Helen Libeu, who's well known in Sonoma County, Ron Guenther, up here in Mendocino County, Brenda Edelman and the Russian River Group, these people went out on their own time and money to save trees and monitor the river and do all that. It wasn't a profit making venture for them. I think they did it quite successfully, considering that they were underfunded or that they were operating out of literally their own pockets. But now we have more environmental groups, more tax-exempt charities and less charity and fewer trees and a deteriorated environment generally.
* * *
Thurston: Brenda Edelman is being quoted in the newspaper as saying that when she realized what you, Jack, were really about… it says here, “she quit River Watch three weeks ago over concern with its tactics.” Can you respond to that, Jack?
Silver: Not really. I know Brenda. She's a friend. We've had her over for dinner a number of times. Her concerns are, I think, uh, not necessarily related, as much as her quotes are.
Thurston: Her quotes?
Silver: Yeah. You're quoting her. Or paraphrasing her. I haven't talked to her personally, so it's difficult for me to determine exactly…
Thurston: You haven't talked to her? She didn't talk with you about all this?
* * *
Thurston: Bruce Anderson wrote a scathing article about River Watch. Now I understand, Jack, that you're going to be responding to the Press Democrat piece and their editorial. You're writing an op-ed piece and they've agreed to give you a whole 750 words. Right?
Silver: Right. And we're hoping they'll print it on Sunday, which is a better day for people to read it.
Thurston: Bruce, do you have a final statement before we let Jack have the final word?
Anderson: Mr. Silver wound up in a lawsuit with the City of Fortuna over alleged environmental violations that were petty, and in the process of being remediated anyway. He has just written a demand-shakedown letter to the city of Ferndale. I don't know how that one's going to work out because there was an accidental, by all accounts, sewage spill last winter which, of course, Mr. Silver quickly became gleefully aware of. Hopefully, Ferndale will resist. But it was during the Fortuna dispute that the Justice Department itself said that Silver's fees were excessive. But that suit apparently settled before the Department could take stronger action against Silver and River Watch. The upshot of all this is that people should be very careful about what kind of boards they sit on, what kinds of so-called environmental groups they donate money to. Like the Redwood Summer Justice Project. People probably think it has something to do with saving redwood trees, when actually it's to fund a lawsuit that benefits three private individuals.
Thurston: They tricked me, huh Bruce?
Anderson: Yes they did, love.
Thurston: I sent them $50 bucks one time.
Anderson: You're a sap!
Thurston: I know.
Anderson: You got taken. You were had.
Thurston: I've learned my lesson.
Anderson: There are all kinds of groups that are not what they seem. If you get Rachel's Environmental Newsletter, if you read that or Alexander Cockburn's and Jeff St. Clair's fine work, you'll find out that there are legitimate environmental groups and you should support them. But there are so many illegitimate ones out there like River Watch and the Clean Water Institute that you've gotta be heads up, and I'm glad that people are finally waking up to this particular one.
Thurston: And Jack Silver…
Silver: We've been appreciating the attention too, because we've never had more support for what we are doing than ever. Primarily because they look at the sources of a lot of the materials and recognize, uh, you know, where there's smoke there must be fire. I also just appreciate the fact that we don't really discuss environmental issues and we're living in a time of increased degradation of our, of our environment and of our health. And bringing these things into the forefront, talking about them, getting people activated about them, that's what we're about and that's what we enjoy doing. We have a website — NorthernCaliforniaRiverwatch.org, if you can't find it under that you can search under River Watch and come up with that. On there we tend to post what we're doing, what we're about, we try and keep people up to date on the litigation that we have, the findings that we have, and we're also starting another part of the web page in which we give a detailed breakdown of everything that we're doing in the way of injunctive relief and if any moneys come out of that where the moneys went to and how they're spent.”
All of which is demonstrably, breathtakingly untrue. But who's looking? Who's watching River Watch?