The environmental nonprofit’s new chairman, the first ever from the South Bay, sets his sights on raising local participation and keeping Hermosa drill-free
Manhattan Beach resident Don Kinsey, 51, is the new chairman of Heal the Bay. Photo by Esther Kang
About once a week, Don Kinsey steps out of his 34th Street family home in Manhattan Beach and makes a run for the waves. There was a time when he traveled the world to surf exotic waters — the Maldives, South Africa and Brazil, to name a few — but now with two young kids, traveling those far places is out of the question.
Still, surfing the local waves hits a special spot for him. It is, after all, what the 51-year-old works tirelessly to protect.
“When you’re in that ocean and you see the fish and the wildlife and you feel the rawness and the power, it puts you in your place,” Kinsey explained. “You feel some perspective on truly where you belong and the role you play on this planet. Also that you’re in an environment you can’t control, but you can control what you put in that environment.”
Last month, the longtime commercial banker was appointed chairman of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based environmental nonprofit widely known for its beach cleanups across Southern California and annual water quality report cards. It is the first time in the organization’s nearly 30-year history that a South Bay resident has taken the helms.
Heal the Bay is at a historic crossroads. Last year, with the departure of the group’s longtime CEO and president Mark Gold, who was with the organization for 26 years, the group welcomed fresh leadership in the form of Ruskin Hartley, a veteran conservationist trained as a geographer at Cambridge University. He had previously directed Save the Redwood League, the San Francisco-based organization focused on studying, restoring and protecting old-growth forests in California.
With Hartley by his side, the new chairman is gearing up for Heal the Bay’s next chapter, one that will continue the legacy of their predecessors but also tackle new issues, such as oil drilling in Hermosa Beach.
“I believe that in the environment you constantly need watchdogs to look out for the greater good,” Kinsey says. “Not because people are deliberately trying to do things, but just the growth of humanity has an impact on our local environment. And for us, it’s the ocean.”
The biggest problem we face now, he explained, is sewage and storm water runoff, which gets flushed out into the ocean. Los Angeles is like a “giant urban jungle,” he said. Whenever it rains, all the toxins from the streets flow straight into the storm drains and out to the ocean.
“Ideally we’d like to be able to recapture and reuse much of the water that gets flushed into the ocean,” he said.
Don Kinsey at his home break in front of his 34th Street home. Photo courtesy of Don Kinsey
Kinsey’s first introduction to Heal the Bay came more than a decade ago through an old client and mentor, who was a board member and invited him to fundraiser events. As Kinsey learned more about the organization, he became a donor.
“One of the things I really liked about Heal the Bay was that they have so much credibility,” the Harvard Business grad explained. “It’s a fact-based, science-based thrust to the effort. So they have tremendous credibility with the people they serve and the people in Sacramento. And I like that we’re not overly litigious. There’s a time for litigation but we try to take action through persuasion, smart persuasion.”
Not long after joining the board nine years ago, Kinsey was elected to the 13-member executive committee. Utilizing his background in finance, he served as treasurer for a number of years.
His predecessor Stephanie Medina, who served her chairmanship from 2012 to 2013 as the first leadership from San Fernando Valley, said she chose Kinsey as her right hand man — or first chairman — in an effort to extend outreach in the South Bay. The selection was a “no brainer,” she said. His commitment to the organization and staff as well as passion for the work cut him out as the ideal representation from the South Bay.
Together, the two led a nationwide search for a new CEO to fill the shoes of Mark Gold.
“During the last two years he gave a lot of time above and beyond what the first chair normally does,” she said. “He’s a proven leader. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner to serve my term with.”
Although the Santa Monica Bay, the organization’s focus, spans from Malibu down to Palos Verdes, just 25 percent of Heal the Bay’s 15,000 members hails from the South Bay. But Kinsey believes the local presence has been improving. Community members are beginning to recognize that Heal the Bay is more than beach cleanups and its annual water quality report cards.
“I think a lot of people in the South Bay are aware of us,” he said. “One of my goals is to capitalize on the presence we have and make it even better.”
In 2008, Heal the Bay played an instrumental role in the City of Manhattan Beach’s ban on single-use plastic bags, raising awareness and educating the community on their adverse impacts on the ocean and environment at large.
“A lot of our role is to provide the actual scientific background, research and testing for any of the initiatives we pursue,” he explained. “
Today, the most pressing issue in the South Bay is the proposed slant-drilling operation from Hermosa Beach into the ocean. If approved by Hermosa voters later this year, oil company E&B Natural Resources could drill as many as 30 wells a few blocks from the beach.
With other local environmental organizations, Heal the Bay is fighting the proposal by its usual method: presenting the facts. In addition to extensive community outreach about the potential land- and ocean-based impacts of drilling, the organization has meticulously reviewed the draft of the Environmental Impact Report, directing the Hermosa Beach City Council and city staff in asking the right questions to ensure a quality report. It is expected to be released this month.
“Nearly 50 percent of residents in Hermosa live within half a mile of this facility they’re proposing,” Kinsey explained. “You don’t need the EIR to understand it from a common sense perspective.”
The potential environmental impacts, he explained, would affect “everybody from Palos Verdes to Malibu.” But perhaps of more concern is the precedent it would set.