Caltrans Agrees to New Highway Designs and Retrofits to Protect the Coast from Polluted Storm Water Runoff

Legal Settlement with Conservation Groups May Change Road Construction Nationally

LOS ANGELES (April 8, 2004) - The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) will design new highways and retrofit old ones with catch basins, sand traps and filters to stop polluted storm water runoff from contaminating rivers, lakes and the ocean, according to an agreement filed yesterday in federal court. When fully implemented by Caltrans, the agreement will resolve the most significant issue in a Clean Water Act lawsuit brought in 1994 by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the Santa Monica BayKeeper and its founder, Terry Tamminen, who now heads the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"As one of the plaintiffs who brought this lawsuit ten years ago, I think it's terrific to see Caltrans finally take responsibility for the pollution that runs off its highways," said EPA Secretary Tamminen. "And as a state official, I'm pleased that this is a balanced agreement, which fully considers costs and technical feasibility. I hope it serves as a model that transportation agencies across the country will use to stop polluted runoff." (Mr. Tamminen recused himself from the case when Governor Schwarzenegger nominated him to be EPA Secretary.)

Storm water runoff is the largest source of coastal water pollution, and highways are a major part of the problem. That's because cars and trucks leave behind a wide variety of pollutants, including zinc and copper dust from brake pads, small toxic particles from tires, as well as oil and grease. Roads are designed to drain quickly, but not to filter the runoff, so contaminants on the pavement run directly into rivers, lakes and the ocean. Tests of some Caltrans drains have revealed contamination so virulent that it qualifies as hazardous waste.

"Caltrans operates the largest freeway system in the country, and they've agreed to approach road construction in a whole new way," said David Beckman, director of NRDC's Coastal Water Quality Project and lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "This could ultimately cut 80 percent of the pollution running off highways and contaminating our coastal waters."

Under the settlement, Caltrans will incorporate approved pollution filtering devices when it builds new roads, lanes or interchanges, or does maintenance work to existing roads. Caltrans will choose from a "tool box" with a dozen devices already proven to be effective and cost-efficient in a joint report that the parties also filed with the court.

Installing filters along the San Diego freeway (I-405) between the Santa Monica freeway (I-10) and Century Boulevard, for instance, would stop approximately 60 tons of pollution per year that currently runs into Santa Monica Bay. Those pollutants would include about 500 pounds of acutely toxic zinc, which can kill various forms of marine life.

The legal settlement includes a detailed decision tree Caltrans must use to determine whether filtering devices are required by specific projects. It also allows the plaintiffs to monitor compliance by reviewing internal Caltrans documents for the next two years.

The Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by NRDC, the BayKeeper and Mr. Tamminen in 1994 was the first case of its kind. Although a federal court upheld the challenge the following year, Caltrans engaged in nearly a decade of legal maneuvering to avoid responsibility for filtering runoff from its roads.

"This agreement looks like a one-eighty for Caltrans," said Mr. Beckman. "It would be hard to overstate the impact of the largest transportation agency in the country getting serious about water pollution, especially since other agencies have pointed to Caltrans to support their own retrograde approach. This could have a very positive ripple effect around the country."

The U.S. District Court will now review the agreement and report. NRDC and the Santa Monica BayKeeper expressed optimism that the court would approve it.