Court Targets Urban Runoff In California Pollution Case

Decision sends signal to industries, cities nationwide

IT is one of the biggest overlooked sources of pollution in the US: oil, grease, toxic chemicals, and metallic wastes washed from the nation's streets and highways down storm drains into adjacent bays and rivers.

Known as ``urban runoff,'' this concentration of pollutants is so widespread and intractable that in 1990 Congress singled it out in major amendments to the Clean Water Act, requiring counties and cities to draft runoff management plans by 1991.

Now, in a major victory for environmentalists, the largest state transportation agency in the country, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), is being forced to live up to the federal guidelines.

A federal judge ruled Nov. 18 that he will issue an injunction within three weeks forcing Caltrans to take steps to prevent runoff from its highways and maintenance facilities.

The decision by US District Judge Edward Rafeedie could have national ramifications because it is the first time a public agency has been held to the new standards.

``This is a landmark decision,'' says Gail Feuer, senior attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of two environmental groups that filed the civil case in October 1993. ``This court has sent a clear message: Polluters beware - you can no longer throw up your hands and claim poverty as an excuse for polluting the ocean. The Clean Water Act demands that you find the resources to clean up your stormwater pollution.''

Studies show Caltrans is the largest contributor of contamination to Santa Monica Bay, where waste from streets and highways is deposited untreated after every rain. A University of California at Los Angeles analysis showed that the flow of oil, grease, and other toxics into the bay increases a thousandfold in large rainstorms. That means a backwash of runoff from 1,200 miles of highways, 50 or so maintenance yards, and numerous construction sites is transferred to southern California's biggest aquatic playground.

``I have found from the evidence that ... Caltrans merely gave lip service to the requirements of the permit, focusing minimal attention....,'' the judge said in his decision. ``The court is not at all moved by the defendant's argument that Caltrans has made a good effort to comply. It is simply insufficient for Caltrans to claim poverty as an excuse....''

The judge ordered Caltrans and NRDC to work out an agreement on how and when the agency must comply. If the two cannot agree by Dec. 5, the judge will decide terms by Dec. 12.

``This sends a message to other major players - industries, municipalities, and agencies - that storm-water pollution is a serious matter, and one we can do something about,'' says Terry Tamminen of the Santa Monica Baykeeper, a citizens monitoring program, which also participated in the suit.

Caltrans officials say the agency has always had a program for cleanup and prevention of toxic runoff but that it has been preoccupied with major repairs of highways following the Jan. 17 earthquake in southern California. The 7.1 temblor collapsed several bridges, roadways, and even full stretches of highway.

``The reality is that cleaning up the earthquake has dominated everything we are doing,'' says Jim Drago, spokesman for Caltrans. But he said the new ruling has set a fire under officials to come up with a reasonable solution. ``We believe that the judge, the NRDC, and we all want the same thing - and that is to protect the environment.''

Much of what Caltrans can do in the way of cleanup may not require any of its own funds, according to several observers. By setting guidelines and creating rules, employees and the public alike can benefit from consciousness-raising about what to do with cans of oil, how to clean up spills, cover waste bins, and dispose of detergents. Caltrans is also eligible for millions in federal funds that it has never applied for.

Court observers say several top Caltrans officials admitted openly to never having read prevention guidelines.

``One after the other said that they had not taken the [Clean Water] Act seriously until we filed suit,'' says Tamminen. Judge Rafeedie noted that he was ``astounded'' to find that most higher-level Caltrans staff had never even read the permit until the environmental groups filed suit.

The 1987 law, updated in 1990, requires local governments to use ``best-available'' methods in ensuring cleanup. But neither Congress nor the Environmental Protection Agency set guidelines, leaving courts to interpret. The victory by NRDC and the Santa Monica BayKeeper followed settlements with the cities of Beverly Hills, El Segundo, and Hermosa Beach under the same permit. Those cities agreed to take significant steps to keep their communities free from stormwater pollution.

Both groups have also filed suit against the Port of Long Beach for violations and are looking at suing several other local industries.

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