Polluters Cannot Use Cost Claims to Avoid Meeting Federal Clean Water Requirements

(LOS ANGELES) April 4, 2005 -- The California Supreme Court today rejected an attempt by the Cities of Burbank and Los Angeles to skirt federal clean water requirements for treated sewage by using cost arguments to justify higher levels of toxic pollution and other contaminants. The dispute is over what can be dumped into the Los Angeles River by local water reclamation plants. Conservationists said the ruling would help protect local rivers and coastal waters.

"The Court rejected the argument that Clean Water Act requirements are subject to a permit-by-permit negotiation," said David Beckman, a senior attorney at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) who argued the case before the Supreme Court along with the California Attorney General's Office. "That means cleaner water sooner for California, which is good for public health and the state economy."

The case, Burbank v. State Water Resources Control Board (No. S119248), examined whether the cost of water pollution and its remedies, as well as other factors, must be assessed when water quality standards are established or revised, or instead, whether they must be continually reassessed whenever a regional water board issues a discharge permit. Discharge permits set maximum pollution levels for municipal and industrial dischargers.

The Court ruled that regional permits for discharging wastewater "may not consider economic factors to justify imposing pollutant restrictions that are LESS STRINGENT than the applicable federal standards require." [Emphasis in original.] However, the Court left unresolved whether the pollutant limits at issue in Burbank merely met, or instead exceeded, federal standards. It sent the case back to a lower court to resolve that question.

Pointing to the Court's opinion at page 15, Mr. Beckman said the Justices clearly meant to set a high bar for water quality. "When enacted in 1972, the goal of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments was to ELIMINATE by the year 1985 the discharge of pollutants into the nation's navigable waters," the opinion emphasizes. [Emphasis in original]

The Court's opinion can be found here.

This decision follows two other important victories for water quality during the last two weeks. On March 24, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge upheld a municipal storm water permit for Los Angeles County that had been challenged by dozens of cities and the County of Los Angles. On March 30, the California Supreme Court let stand a lower court decision that state regulators can apply California's water quality standards to polluted runoff, and not just to sewage treatment plants and factory discharges.