Ruling is Fifth Clean Water Victory in California Since December

LOS ANGELES (June 16, 2005) -- In a major environmental case, a federal appeals court has upheld a new federal rule to eliminate thousands of tons of trash from the L.A. River, its estuaries and Southern California coastal waters over the next 14 years. Massive quantities of trash currently pollute these waters, threatening human health, harming marine life and birds and damaging ecosystems.

A coalition of 22 L.A. County cities had challenged the clean water rule, which was adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 to comply with a consent decree in a case brought by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Santa Monica Baykeeper and Heal the Bay. The cities not only tried to slow efforts to remove trash from local waters, but also attacked the consent decree itself, under which 90 new clean water rules must be established.

The decision Wednesday by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in "City of Arcadia v. USEPA" is the fifth court ruling in California this year to reject challenges by developers and municipalities to clean water rules.

The court's opinion is available here.

"Five wins in six months sure looks like a trend," said David Beckman, a senior attorney at NRDC which litigated all five cases. "At this rate, we may actually live to see clean water in California."

According to Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, "this legal victory sends a strong message to litigating cities and agencies avoiding Clean Water Act requirements: it is time to stop wasting money in the courtroom and to start cleaning up polluted rivers and beaches."

"The most powerful tool for cleaning up our water is back in the toolbox, and that's great news for everyone who uses our beaches or cares about the Southern California environment," said Tracy Egoscue, executive director and Baykeeper of the Santa Monica Baykeeper.

The other recent clean water rulings are as follows:

  • In December 2004, a unanimous three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal ruled in a case from San Diego that state regulators can require that bodies of water are clean, not merely require that polluters make an effort to reduce contaminated runoff.

  • In March 2005, the California Supreme Court refused to overturn the San Diego decision.

  • Also in March 2005, the Los Angeles Superior Court rejected five lawsuits challenging L.A. County's storm water cleanup plan, which is similar to San Diego's plan. In these cases and in the San Diego case, the courts ruled that the plans were reasonable and practicable.

  • In April 2005, the California Supreme Court again rejected challenges to the U.S. Clean Water Act, this time by the Cities of Burbank and Los Angeles. The court held that polluters cannot use cost considerations under state law to avoid complying with federal sewage cleanup requirements.

Trash and contaminants dumped into the L.A. River flow into Long Beach Harbor and then spread up and down the coast, harming wildlife, fouling beaches and endangering public heath. Littering and illegal dumping account for some of that trash, but the top source is polluted storm water and urban runoff discharged from municipal storm drains. The rule upheld in "Arcadia v. USEPA" (known as a "total maximum daily load" or TMDL rule) gradually limits over 14 years the amount of trash that can be dumped into the river and ocean.