Supreme Court finds Los Angeles County liable for stormwater pollution
|May 5, 2014 - The US Supreme Court refuses to hear LA County's appeal of a judicial determination that it is responsible for cleaning up local waterways from polluted stormwater runoff.|
|San Gabriel Valley Tribune|
|The Los Angeles River as it passes under the Fletcher Drive Bridge. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District are liable for the stormwater pollution that flows down the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers. Staff file photo|
The Los Angeles County Flood Control District is liable for stormwater pollution that flows down both the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday.
By refusing to consider the county’s appeal, the high court let stand the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from August, when the court found the county and the district violated the federal Clean Water Act 140 times from 2002 to 2008 for excessive amounts of aluminum, copper, cyanide, zinc and fecal coliform bacteria.
“No longer can the county deny the problem. No longer can the county ignore the law,” said Liz Crosson, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, a co-plaintiff in the original lawsuit filed in 2008.
The county had argued that it maintains the 2,800 miles of storm drains but is not responsible for the toxic pollutants they carry and deposit into Santa Monica Bay, Long Beach, Seal Beach and inland lakes, such as Legg Lake in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area.
The county was deemed responsible in March 2011 for fouling popular beaches and lakes that receive outflows from the rivers. The Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal and in January 2013 ruled in favor of the county but in a narrow opinion. The case was remanded to the Ninth Circuit for a full ruling on liability.
The 9th Circuit court divided the case into liability and remedies. The remedy aspect will be heard at a later date, said Steve Fleischli, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the other plaintiff in the case.
“The county of Los Angeles has violated the law,” he said. “Who is responsible for cleaning it up has not yet been determined.”
Gail Farber, chief engineer of the district and director of the county’s Public Works Department, in a prepared statement called the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case “disturbing.” Farber believes the liability and the high cost of ridding stormwater of pollutants will fall on the county’s 88 cities and 140 unincorporated communities.
“This could force municipalities to redirect limited public funds from other critical service to spend on controlling pollution from private and other sources who are the responsible parties,” Farber said in a written statement.
Indeed, the county has estimated the cost of removing this last source of water pollution at $120 billion, said Monrovia Mayor Mary Ann Lutz, former chairwoman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and chairwoman of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments’ water committee.
Lutz said the county is absolutely correct, that each city will be responsible for cleanup. That’s because not just the county, but each city near the two rivers has taken out National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. So each city is technically in violation of breaking environmental laws.
“It is serious. It is big,” Lutz said. “It will be millions and millions of dollars for each city, as much as a billion.”
Because stormwater pollution is ubiquitous, assigning blame is difficult. The county says so many sources — from motor oil on streets and blacktop to pet waste make up what’s called nonpoint water pollution — that the county should not shoulder the cleanup burden.
Studies say urban runoff sickens 640,000 to 1.4 million people who visit L.A. and Orange County beaches each year, according to the NRDC.
Some remedies offered by the NRDC include: bioswales that filter out toxins as runoff percolates into underground aquifers, installing cisterns beneath parking lots to catch and treat runoff before it reaches the ocean, and building stormwater treatment plants.
Lutz said the cities of Los Angeles County are asking Congress to provide funding for such remedies. They’ve also asked Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-South Gate, to include funding for stormwater treatment in a proposed $8 billion water bond measure that also protects the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Many bills being debated in Sacramento would replace the $11.2 billion version on the November ballot.
“We need to deploy green infrastructure and capture more stormwater. So when it does rain, we don’t treat it as a liability but as a resource,” Fleischli said.
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