Lengthy decision rejects five lawsuits challenging county storm water cleanup mandate

(LOS ANGELES) March 28, 2005 -- A Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge on Friday rejected the most extensive legal challenge ever filed against a polluted storm water cleanup plan in California. Storm water runoff is the largest source of coastal water pollution, and the L.A. county plan requires many new cleanup measures to combat it. Those measures now must be implemented across the county, and the plan's new results-oriented approach means that Southern California's water actually must get cleaner.

The ruling comes after an unusual and lengthy trial in which the court considered five consolidated lawsuits brought two years ago by a coalition of cities and developers. Never before has any California court considered so many legal challenges against so many aspects of a water pollution cleanup plan. The court ruled in favor of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and three conservation groups -- NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Heal the Bay, and Santa Monica Baykeeper -- that intervened as formal parties in the lawsuit. NRDC and the California Attorney General's Office jointly defended the cleanup plan in court.

The L.A. county storm water cleanup plan, issued under the federal Clean Water Act and state law, aims to reduce the largest source of pollution to California's coast with 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. The court also found that the costs of complying with the plan's requirements were reasonable and that regulators carefully considered "economics in testimony, comment letters, local studies, national studies, EPA reports, and self-reported costs from [cities]."

One of the most important aspects of the decision is the court's 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.

"This decision holds developers and local governments accountable for our top source of water pollution," said David Beckman, senior attorney with NRDC and lead trial attorney on the case. "Southern California's waters will be getting cleaner as a result of this ruling, and that's good for public health, the environment and the local economy."

"This is an important decision and we hope a milestone," said NRDC attorney Anjali Jaiswal. "The opponents of this plan have had their day in court, and it is high time for everyone with a role to play in fixing this serious problem to get on with that important business."

Public opinion polls consistently demonstrate the high priority that Southern Californians put on efforts to restore water quality in local waters. Los Angeles city voters last November overwhelmingly adopted Proposition O, a $500 million bond measure to reduce polluted storm water runoff that contaminates local rivers, lakes and beaches.