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
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
"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