Court Targets Urban Runoff in California Pollution Case Decision Sends Signal to Industries, Cities Nationwide

Article excerpt

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. …


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