A New Beachhead for Water Quality
Lawsuit over Santa Monica Bay is latest volley in effort to hold EPA accountable.
MARINA DEL REY, CALIF.
A quarter-mile offshore from the most crowded beaches in the United States, the view from a bobbing speedboat tells the whole story.Skip to next paragraph
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To the right, orange buoys warn of bottom sludge containing DDT, lead, and other metals - sludge too hazardous to be safely dredged. To the left, alongside the white sand where sunbathers loll, four storm drains jut out of the ground, aimed like bazookas into the breaking surf of Santa Monica Bay. Behind them, still more ominous silhouettes: two power plants, one sewage-treatment facility, and a Chevron oil refinery.
"It's been 25 years since the US Environmental Protection Agency was entrusted with making these waters swimmable and fishable," says David Beckman, chief counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). But because of plants, storm drains, and other sources of pollutants, the bay is one of more than 150 bodies of water in southern California that the EPA acknowledges exceed safe levels for pollution.
Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972, mandating that the EPA safeguard America's bodies of water from such pollutants. "We say it's high time they lived up to that promise," says Mr. Beckman.
Three environmental organizations are considering filing a lawsuit that would force EPA to clean up Santa Monica Bay and the other bodies of water in southern California that exceed safe pollution levels. The suit was scheduled to be filed today. But last-minute negotiations were under way to see if the legal action could be forestalled. If the suit goes forward, it would represent one of the largest legal actions ever taken against the EPA to protect American waterways.
"Either through these negotiations or lawsuit, the EPA will be forced to do what the law says it must do," says Beckman. "They have no other choice."
The lawsuit is the latest in about a dozen such legal efforts, that have been gaining momentum during the past seven years. The NRDC has been a part of other suits as well - in states such as New York, Minnesota, Illinois, and Louisiana. Last month, four Tennessee environmental groups announced their intentions of forcing state officials to adopt a program to identify and clean up the state's most polluted waters.
The suits deal with the second of a two-pronged approach that was set up by the Clean Water Act. First, the act imposed formal limits on how much pollution a discharger may send into lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. Second, it assesses how clean such waters actually are.
Every body of water that remains polluted, or "impaired," is then subject to the so-called TMDL program. Standing for "total maximum daily load," the specifications define allowable limits for each of a long list of pollutants - such as lead - that can be discharged into water. The amount they can discharge depends on that body of water's intended use: from drinking to swimming or fishing.
"The first half of the Clean Water Act has been implemented and we have made much progress," says Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, one of three plaintiffs in the suit.