Court Upholds Rules Requiring Small Cities and Developers To Clean Up Runoff Pollution

Court Also Strikes Down EPA Scheme Allowing Polluters to Write Permits

WASHINGTON (January 15, 2003) -- Late yesterday, a federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld rules requiring small cities, counties and developers to protect waterways from stormwater pollution. Specifically, the court found that the Environmental Protection Agency's stormwater program is constitutional, rejecting claims that the agency exceeded its authority by requiring cities and developers to decontaminate stormwater before discharging it into rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

The court also ruled that EPA's policy of allowing polluters to write their own permits is illegal. The appeals court ruling is available at the 9th Circuit Court's website.

Yesterday's decision resulted from challenges brought by the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, which wanted to strengthen the stormwater rules, and the National Association of Home Builders, the American Forest and Paper Association, and two Texas coalitions of cities and counties, which wanted to weaken the rules. NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) intervened in May 2000.

"The court sent a very strong message yesterday," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "First, municipalities and developers have to obey the law and clean up stormwater pollution to protect public health. Second, the EPA has to make sure cities and developers comply with the law. Polluters cannot police themselves."

The EPA stormwater rules, adopted in 1999, apply to sewer systems run by small cities and counties, and to runoff from construction sites of 1 to 5 acres. Rules for runoff from industrial sites, larger construction sites, and cities with populations over 100,000, took effect in 1990. The rules stemmed from Clean Water Act amendments made in 1987.

Urban stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution in U.S. coastal waters and the second largest source of water pollution in U.S. estuaries, according to EPA data. It is also the largest known source of the bacterial contamination that closes thousands of beaches each year. Stormwater pollution also increases flooding, erodes stream banks, and destroys wildlife habitat.

"There are a number of simple, commonsense things that cities and developers can do to keep stormwater pollution from closing our beaches, contaminating our drinking water sources, and devastating wildlife habitat," said Stoner. "Thanks to this ruling, our waters -- and our health -- will be protected." (For more information about stormwater management practices, see NRDC's report, "Stormwater Strategies".)

The appeals court also accepted NRDC's argument that the public has a right to be involved in the stormwater permitting process. It said EPA must strengthen its rules by authorizing public hearings and state review of local plans.

NRDC believes the ruling will block other Bush administration attempts to circumvent the Clean Water Act. "This ruling has implications for factory farms and other polluting industries as well as for stormwater dischargers," said Stoner. "The court held that allowing polluters to write their own permits behind closed doors violates the Clean Water Act. Given this ruling, there is no doubt that EPA's recent rule allowing factory farms to write their own animal waste plans is illegal."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.