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A diver in California has stumbled on an unexpected source of plastic waste in the ocean: golf balls.
As the balls degrade, they can emit toxic chemicals. And there appear to be lots of them in certain places underwater — right next to coastal golf courses.
Two years ago, a 16-year old diver named Alex Weber was swimming off Pebble Beach along the Pacific near Carmel, Calif. “My dad raised me underwater,” says Weber, and she means it. She’s a free diver: no scuba tanks; she just holds her breath. She was diving in a small cove and looked down and saw something weird. “You couldn’t see the sand,” she recalls, still sounding incredulous. “It was completely white.”
White with golf balls. “You looked down and you’re like, ‘What are you doing here?’ “
There were thousands of them. “It felt like a shot to the heart,” she says.
She was offended. Right then, she decided to haul them up. Thus began a Sisyphean task that went on for months: She and her father would haul hundreds of pounds of them up, and then of course more golfers would hit more into the ocean.
She took what she and her father collected back home. “I had all of these golf balls in the garage,” she says. “And they stank.”
Then she heard about a Stanford University scientist, Matt Savoca, who studied plastic waste in the ocean. She emailed him, and he came to look at her collection.
“Fifty thousand golf balls, just sitting in the garage,” she says.
Savoca was impressed. Weber recalls that he turned to her and said, ” ‘You should write a paper about this,’ and I was like, ‘Matt, I’m 16 years old. I don’t know how to write a scientific paper!’ “
He said he would help, which meant diving with her. Not easy. “The oceans off California are actually quite cold, so you suit up in a pretty thick wetsuit,” he says. “It’s incredibly physically demanding.”
They took kayaks out to ferry the golf balls back. “Once you recover many, many golf balls, you put them on the kayak,” he explains. Adds Weber: “We’ll have the kayaks so filled with plastic that we’ll end up just having to tow the kayaks — we’ll have to swim (them) to shore.”
There are sharks in the water there, but Savoca says that wasn’t the real threat. “When we were out there,” he says, “We’d hear, ‘plink, plink,’ and we’d look up on the hill and there’d be golf balls flying in off the course right into the ocean where we were doing collections.” Despite the aerial barrage, they kept at it, says Weber. “Whenever we had good conditions, we were able to pull out between, like, 500 to 5,000 golf balls,” she says.
Over two years, they found more than 50,000 golf balls. The source: five golf courses. Two along the coastline, and three up the Carmel River — those golf balls rolled underwater down the river to the ocean.
In the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, the team notes that golf balls are coated with a thin polyurethane shell that degrades over time. They also contain zinc compounds that are toxic. Savoca points out that the surf and currents act like a rock grinder and break down the golf balls. While chemicals from 50,000 or so golf balls will have only a small effect on the ocean, Savoca says they do degrade into microplastic pieces that marine animals could eat. The team also notes that there are lots of coastal golf courses around the world, so this may go beyond California.
Alex Weber, now 18 and a published author in a scientific journal, plans to apply to university to study marine science. In the meantime, she is still collecting, and keeping up her website. She says it is too bad the golf balls sink. If they floated, people would be shocked and outraged. “If a person could see what we see underwater,” she says, “it would not be acceptable.”
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Survivors of California’s recent wildfires are bracing for the possibility that the utility Pacific Gas and Electric may go into bankruptcy protection by the end of this month. Investigators are looking into whether the company’s equipment started the Camp Fire. For victims suing PG&E, a company bankruptcy could impact their compensation. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Lily Jamali has more.
LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: For the last several weeks, California’s Butte County has been inundated with TV ads like these.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is for victims of the Paradise, Calif., Camp Fire. You may have a claim for damages against PG&E.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You need an advocate who’s been down this path before, someone who can make sure you’re represented fairly and get you the best return for your loss.
JAMALI: Many local lawyers have partnered with the deep-pocketed attorneys from elsewhere, some from thousands of miles away, in a race to recruit fire survivors. The more victims, the more leverage against PG&E whose equipment may have sparked November’s Camp Fire. That fire killed at least 86 people and destroyed almost 14,000 homes.
SHIRLEEN DEREZENDES: It’s a very intimate and personal process when they work with…
JAMALI: At this community meeting in Chico, Shirleen DeRezendes pitches survivors on how her firm can help them.
DEREZENDES: I don’t know another group that has a bigger heart than we do. And I’m…
JAMALI: She tells them the 2017 fires north of San Francisco destroyed the homes of countless friends and family. That prompted her to start working for the group, which includes a firm based in Washington, D.C., and another in Texas. They just opened an office here in Chico.
DEREZENDES: I consider the people that I work directly with from start to finish – they’re like family
JAMALI: Amy Meyer, who lost her home in Paradise, is in the audience with her 9-year-old daughter and 15-month-old son. Afterwards, she tells me she’s still considering her options, but suing PG&E makes sense.
AMY MEYER: Because so many of the plans that were in place were destroyed by the fire – you know, rebuilding and having to relocate for jobs and, you know, not having as many work hours as I continue on in this process. So yes.
JAMALI: Lawyers expect to receive a standard retainer of about a third of whatever they win in suits against PG&E. But if the utility ends up in bankruptcy protection, that would throw a wrench into those plans. Bruce Markell teaches bankruptcy law at Northwestern University.
BRUCE MARKELL: Under bankruptcy law, all actions against a company are halted by something called the automatic stay, and no new actions can be brought.
JAMALI: Thousands of victims from the Camp Fire and thousands more from the 2017 fires elsewhere in Northern California would see their suits against PG&E placed on hold.
AMANDA RIDDLE: It’s not game over, but it definitely changes the game.
JAMALI: Attorney Amanda Riddle represents more than 800 Camp Fire survivors and counting. She says the bankruptcy threat has added to the rush to sign on more victims.
RIDDLE: The fact of the matter is there are a lot of people out there who need our help. And we are not at the place where we are going to change our strategy because of this bankruptcy talk. We’re going to continue helping them unless and until a bankruptcy court tells us it’s time to stop.
JAMALI: But not all lawyers are expected to stick around. If PG&E does file for bankruptcy for the second time in as many decades, it would be one of the largest ever for a utility. It could take years before victims and their attorneys learn whether they’ll get the payouts they seek or end up with pennies on the dollar. For NPR News, I’m Lily Jamali in San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM’S “SHOULDER KISS”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.