State, EPA Can Demand Clean Rivers and Beaches in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (October 6, 2006) -- The California Court of Appeal reaffirmed today the authority of state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require cities to show actual results, measured in cleaner water, in their efforts to clean up storm water runoff, the leading source of water pollution in Southern California. The ruling puts to rest the argument that polluters and city officials had only to try to reduce the contaminated runoff in order to meet their legal obligations.

"This decision makes it clear to all that clean water is the yardstick that matters," said David Beckman, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and lead trial attorney on the case. "Local cities unfortunately have labored to avoid cleaning up their act, but this decision makes plain that they have a legal duty now to deliver a simple result -- clean water."

This was the most extensive legal challenge ever filed against a polluted storm water cleanup plan in California. The County of Los Angeles, along with a coalition of 32 cities, and building groups, filed the lawsuit attempting to invalidate the requirements to control urban runoff. In rejecting the plaintiffs' main claim that the permit was too difficult or costly to implement, the Court stated, in part, that "we agree with [the environmental groups] that plaintiffs in making these assertions have failed in every respect to set forth all of the relevant evidence."

Storm water runoff is the largest source of coastal water pollution in California. The L.A. County storm water cleanup plan, issued under the federal Clean Water Act, includes new measures such as drain filters, silt-removal basins, and more rigorous inspections of industrial facilities. The plan also improves on past storm water control efforts by requiring measurable improvement in coastal water quality, and not merely effort, by cities, industry, and developers, all of whom have responsibilities under the plan.

In its only concession to the plaintiffs, the Court found that the California Regional Water Quality Control Board should do limited environmental review before issuing its storm water permits. However, the Court asked a superior court in Los Angeles to consider whether that issue is now moot. "We disagree with every other contention raised by plaintiffs," said the ruling.
NRDC also represented local environmental groups Santa Monica Baykeeper and Heal the Bay in these cases.

Baykeeper Executive Director Tracy Egoscue praised the decision, noting that "the Court refused to water down protections for Los Angeles waterways and coasts. Results matter, and now the Regional Board can assure we all get the benefits of cleaner water."

Mark Gold, Executive Director of Heal the Bay, urged local cities to start focusing on protecting public health, noting that "we hope that the court's decision, to uphold the provisions of the county storm water permit, will finally lead to Coalition for Practical Regulation cities to stop focusing on litigation, and start focusing on protecting public health and aquatic life by reducing runoff pollution."

One of the most important aspects of the decision is the rejection of the argument that California's water quality standards, which set purity thresholds for "clean water," did not apply to polluted runoff, but only to sewage treatment plants and factory discharges. The court upheld the authority of state regulators to require both cities and builders to implement and develop control measures to meet these standards, which apply to pathogens, toxins and other pollutants.