Dear EPA: Polluters Should Pay for Water Contamination

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Photo: Frederic Poirot

Los Angeles has long suffered from water quality problems, and in urban areas, the problem gets much worse every time it rains or when streets are wet by other means, such as garden hoses or sprinklers. In a rainstorm like the one that surprised Southern California earlier this week, billions of gallons of polluted water rush down storm drains and out to rivers and oceans. In fact, stormwater runoff is one of the main sources of water pollution, which has significant negative impacts on public health, wildlife and ecosystems.

In response to these persistent water quality concerns, environmental groups NRDC, American Rivers, and Los Angeles Waterkeeper petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today asking the agency to require certain types of private properties to reduce the amount of stormwater pollution they send into two local bodies of water, the Los Cerritos Channel and the Dominguez Channel. In particular, commercial, institutional, and industrial sites tend to generate outsize amounts of pollution because they tend to have significant impervious space, mainly in the form of paved surfaces such as parking lots and rooftops. These impervious areas produce large amounts of runoff containing high levels of heavy metals, ammonia and other contaminants--many of which are the same pollutants that plague the Los Cerritos Channel and the Dominguez Channel.

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Dominguez Channel. (Photo: Laurie Avocado)

But not all polluters are held responsible for their water discharges. Today's petitions to EPA intend to address commercial and industrial properties' contributions to water pollution, which can be costly.

The Costs of Polluted Runoff

In a 2000 national survey of the health of some of the nation's waters, polluted runoff impaired at least 38,114 miles of rivers, 948,420 acres of lakes, 2,742 square miles of bays and estuaries, and 79,582 acres of wetlands.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), up to 25% of economic damage caused by flooding occurs because runoff overwhelms urban drainage systems. And the economic impact is compounded because coastal and marine waters support 28.3 million jobs that depend upon safe, clean water. Contamination and loss of aquatic species and habitats from polluted stormwater runoff cost the commercial fish and shellfish industry alone up to $30 million every year.

Despite the high costs of dealing with the pollution that they help to generate, many of California's commercial, industrial and institutional sites aren't obligated to help clean up the mess. That responsibility falls disproportionately on local governments, which are regulated under federal law and statewide stormwater permits.

The Need for EPA to Step In

Asking the government to clean up the pollution that private parties are creating is both inefficient and unfair--particularly when Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles, which are tasked with maintaining safe water quality levels, do not control and cannot access the land generating the runoff. Requiring the sites creating the pollution to take action themselves is a commonsense solution.

The legal basis for the petitions is a provision in the Clean Water Act known as "residual designation authority," or RDA. According to the Clean Water Act, if EPA determines that a category of stormwater discharges is contributing to water quality violations, the agency must exercise its residual designation authority and require those dischargers to apply for permits. Those permits must then require the sites to limit the amount of pollution in their runoff, such as by mandating actions or steps that they must undertake. Ideally, the permits would require the sites to implement green infrastructure practices (like bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavements) that capture rain where it falls and prevent stormwater pollution at the source.

The intended result is cleaner water, healthier communities, and ultimately, improved quality of life in Los Angeles. And exercising RDA and requiring private properties to do their fair share would also be a more evenhanded allocation of clean-up responsibility than the system we have now," said Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper.

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Los Cerritos Channel Wetlands. (Photo: Michael R. Perry)

NRDC and our partners filed similar petitions two years ago that requested permits for commercial, industrial, and institutional sites in larger geographical regions. EPA denied those petitions, claiming that we hadn't shown that commercial and industrial sites were causing water quality problems in any particular watershed. We disagree with EPA's conclusions, which lacked scientific foundation and seemed more like an excuse to dodge responsibility for controlling this kind of pollution. Today, we're challenging the agency's assertions and filing new petitions in four specific watersheds (the Los Cerritos Channel, the Dominguez Channel, Army Creek in Delaware, and the Back River in Maryland) where the evidence is clear that these types of sites are responsible for local water quality impairments.

If successful, these petitions will demonstrate that RDA is a critical legal tool that can be used to establish more equitable and effective clean-up requirements for stormwater pollution dischargers in urban watersheds nationwide.

Information about our other petitions can be found here:

About the Authors

Johanna Dyer

Attorney, Water program

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