Proposed plastic bag ban in SLO County gets unknown challenge

Over the weekend, San Luis Obispo County residents received automated phone calls and emails asking them to oppose a controversial plastic bag ban that will be before the county’s waste management board for a vote Wednesday.

The calls came from a group that identified itself as the Environmental Safety Alliance. But the identity of those behind the alliance has been elusive to recipients of the calls, and many proponents of the bag ban believe the alliance may be tied to the plastics industry, which stands to lose millions of dollars should bag bans be upheld.

The Tribune on Monday tracked down two people involved with the calls. Both denied a connection with the plastics industry, but they were vague about exactly who is bankrolling the alliance.

Dr. Andre Feliz, who has worked in pathology and has concerns about the cloth bags that would replace the plastic bags, said he was asked to participate in the alliance campaign by “a coalition of retail interests, stores and some farming interests.”

Felix said his involvement is on the medical end — the possible spread of food-borne illnesses — not politics.

The other person publicly identified with the alliance, who introduced the automated calls by saying “This is Dr. Robert Johnson,” is indeed a doctor — of musical art, not medicine, he told The Tribune.

Johnson said he was “not at liberty to say” who is funding the alliance. He would not divulge how much the alliance spent, how many calls the group made, or who are its members.

The vote will be made by the Integrated Waste Management Authority’s board of directors. If it passes, single-use plastic bags will be outlawed countywide in most supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores and big-box stores, beginning in October.

What makes the Environmental Safety Alliance and its final-weekend phone calls remarkable is their secretive nature.

There has been considerable public interest in the proposed ordinance, and people on both sides have identified themselves at earlier meetings as they made their cases.

The Coalition of Labor, Business and Agriculture of San Luis Obispo County, for example, has spoken and written repeatedly against the ordinance. SLO Coastkeeper, an environmental organization, has been forthrightly in favor. Neither group has hidden its membership or affiliations.

Even organizations on the same side of the issue did not know who was behind the Environmental Safety Alliance and its “robo” calls. Mike Brown of COLAB said, “I don’t know what that firm is,” and John Peschong of the Republican lobbying group Meridian Pacific said he “never heard of it.”

The group does not appear to exist except on paper. The Environmental Safety Alliance cannot be reached by phone through its website and it initially ignored efforts by The Tribune to correspond via the email address the organization lists. The group’s website is www.environmentalsafetyalliance.com.

The messages the group left on residents’ phones over the weekend told people about the Wednesday meeting and warned that the ordinance will harm the environment.

On its website, it has a lead story headlined, “Banning plastic bags is good for the environment, right? Think again.” It urges those who received the phone call to contact four members of the waste management’s board: Greg O’Sullivan of Templeton, county Supervisor Jim Patterson, Arroyo Grande City Councilman Tim Brown, and Pismo Beach City Councilman Ted Ehring, whose name the group misspelled as Erring.

In a preliminary vote in November, those four voted to move the ordinance forward to the January vote. But so did San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh, as well as county Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson. It was unclear why the alliance did not suggest contacting those board members.

The key argument the alliance makes is that careless use of reusable cloth bags can lead to more food-borne illnesses. Feliz, who has expertise in the area, said he worried that if plastic bags are replaced abruptly by cloth bags, those illnesses could appear.

Asked whether he would support a gradual ban on plastic bags if the public were simultaneously educated about the proper use of cloth bags, Feliz said he would.

Patterson said the waste management board intends to talk to the public about cloth bags and food-borne illnesses, among other things, as part of its 10-month phase-in of the ordinance.

The alliance calls upset some residents, including O’Sullivan, whose unlisted phone number was made public by the group.O’Sullivan and David Vogel, a Los Osos Community Services District board member who received a call, said they spent time over the past several days trying to track down the alliance.

Vogel said he was angered that Johnson identified himself as a doctor, knowing people would think he was a medical doctor, when in fact his doctorate is in music. He said this sort of “misrepresentation is becoming more and more common.”

Others have argued that robo calls and their focus on cloth bags are an effort to divert attention from the environmental dangers of discarded plastic, which, they say, have become ubiquitous in the environment and do incalculable damage. They say that more than 1 million marine mammals and seabirds die annually from plastic ingestion or entanglement.

If passed, the ordinance would allow retailers to charge 10 cents per paper bag after plastic bags are phased out.

The waste agency’s board of directors consists of all five county supervisors, a representative from each of the county’s seven cities, and a board member who represents the county’s special districts.

Hearing details

The public hearing on the proposed ban on plastic bags begins at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Board of Supervisors chambers, 1055 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo.