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Fed appeals court finds Los Angeles County liable for polluted rivers

Los Angeles River. (27405)
Los Angeles River.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — A federal appeals panel ruled today that Los Angeles County is responsible for cleaning up two polluted Southland waterways.

In its opinion, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that untreated stormwater and urban runoff discharged into various watercourses has resulted in excessive levels of aluminum, copper, cyanide, zinc and fecal bacteria in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

“Because the results of county defendants’ pollution monitoring conclusively demonstrate that pollution levels in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers are in excess of those allowed under the permit, the county defendants are liable for permit violations as a matter of law,” Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote for the court.

Gail Farber, chief engineer of the county Flood Control District and director of the Department of Public Works, said the decision adopts an argument about stormwater monitoring that the court rejected in two previous decisions in the same case by the same judges.

“We view this as another legal skirmish in a case we thought had been resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Farber said. “It is unfortunate that this case continues to divert public resources away from the work of improving water quality in the L.A. region.”

Nonetheless, Farber pledged to “continue to work collaboratively with cities, regulatory agencies, and the environmental community to enhance water quality and protect our waterways.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper sued Los Angeles County and its Flood Control District in 2008 for violations of water quality standards outlined in the county’s Clean Water Act.

“Today’s influential victory once again confirms Los Angeles County’s legacy of Clean Water Act violations,” said Steve Fleischli, director of the NRDC’s water program.

“No longer can the county sit idle and let persistent pollution problems sicken swimmers in Southern California,” he said. “Today, Los Angeles residents and visitors alike can celebrate a future with cleaner water, knowing that the county is legally obligated to get to work to address its pollution problem, and protect people and water quality. Luckily, we know there are a range of green infrastructure solutions available to ensure this pollution is addressed.”

The pollution doesn’t stop at the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

Those waterways, in turn, drain into several coastal waters, including the Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific Ocean, Fleischli said.

The ruling comes after the case was remanded to the circuit court by the U.S. Supreme Court in January.

Stormwater pollution is created when rain mixes with debris, chemicals, dirt, and other pollutants and flows into storm sewer systems and local waterways.

Anything that enters a storm sewer system is discharged, largely untreated, into the water used for swimming, fishing and recreation.

Each year, billions of gallons of this untreated stormwater pollution are discharged into Los Angeles rivers and ultimately popular beaches, causing residents and tourists alike to become ill, according to the lawsuit.

“This opinion is a turning point for all of Los Angeles,” said Liz Crosson, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper.

“Stormwater runoff is the number one source of pollution in Los Angeles’ rivers and beaches and L.A. County is the largest discharger of stormwater,” she said. “Holding L.A. county responsible for its pollution and working with them to find region-wide solutions is the biggest victory we could imagine.”

The appeals court remanded the case back to Los Angeles federal court for a determination of the appropriate remedy for the violations.

Farber said the county is “considering its options” in light of the appellate decision.