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The Grass Roots Fight for Clean Water and Green Justice

The City of Los Angeles is complying with the Clean Water Act through a $2 billion settlement agreement and court order to improve the sewer system city wide, and to eliminate persistent and offensive sewer odors that plagued residents for decades in the historic heart of African-American Los Angeles. The odors smell like rotten eggs and are caused by naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide escaping from the sewers. The Los Angeles sewer system is one of the largest in the nation, making this work significant well beyond Southern California to the nation. It was the first time the Clean Water Act was used to address sewage odors, separate from overflows. It is one of the largest sewage cases in U.S. history, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Maybe sewer work is not glamorous, but the case highlights the need for equal access to public resources to improve quality of life for all, including equitable infrastructure investments. After the city admitted liability for more than 3,500 sewage spills, the consolidated cases in United States et al. v. City of Los Angeles ended in 2004 with a 90-page $2 billion settlement agreement to improve the sewer system citywide, clean up sewer odors, and create park, creek, and wetland projects to improve water quality and quality of life.

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The original suit under the Clean Water Act was filed by a mainstream environmental group in 1998, with EPA, and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board filing a similar suit in 2001.

Incredibly, the city argued at the time that there was no systemic city wide problem, because overflows were concentrated instead in South Los Angeles and Highland Park -- communities that are disproportionately of color or low income.

That's when grass roots leaders from South L.A. and the Baldwin Hills, represented by civil rights attorneys from The City Project and English, Munger & Rice, took action. They intervened in the pending cases in 2001 because the mainstream environmentalists and government attorneys were not working with the community to address the odors. The grass roots groups seeking access to justice through the courts included the Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowners' Association, Inc., Baldwin Hills Village Garden Homes Association, United Homeowners Association, Village Green Owners Association, and Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles.

Grass roots and city leaders at the 2004 Settlement Press Conference | Photo courtesy of The City Project

In 2009, the parties went back to court to modify the 2004 settlement. Although the city had made progress to reduce sewer overflows, there had been little progress to eliminate odors in South L.A. and the Baldwin Hills. The people weren't happy.

Things have gotten much better under the modified settlement terms since 2009. Why? The modified 2009 settlement provides for an Odor Advisory Board with volunteer community members, an independent expert and The City Project as community liaison to work with the city to fix the odor problem. The city has built two air treatment facilities (ATFs) to vacuum air from the sewers and clean it up using state-of-the-art technology. A third ATF will be built in East L.A. "Sewer odors have vastly improved, and equally important, the community's relationship with the city has also improved as a result," according to Erica Flores Baltodano, a civil rights attorney who spent ten years on the case before starting her own law firm in San Luis Obispo.

According to Ms. Opal Young, a charming African American community leader who serves as an "odor chief" on the board, "The city's response under the new settlement has been excellent! It couldn't get any better." Why? "I am not an engineer, but the ATF's, it has to be that, and other things the city did. The city is listening to us. They changed their mode. With our persistence and the help of The City Project and the independent expert, they saw we were not going away. This is not the end of the story. We're not putting a period there, we're only putting a comma. But we will make things happen if the good things don't keep up."

According to Adel Hagekhalil, Assistant Director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation and an Environmental Engineer, "The Odor Advisory Board restored trust between the community and the city. We listen to the community. They provide us real feedback. We provide them accurate information."

Plus: "Results helped. When you drove down Rodeo ten years ago you had to roll up your windows. Now children can walk across the intersection without holding their nose. We have built two state of the art ATFs. We are being visited by experts from around the world to study how we did it."

ATF at the base of the Baldwin Hills Park | Photo courtesy of The City Project

According to Mr. Hagekhalil, sewer overflows hit a record low in 2011, one of the lowest in the nation. The city reached an 83% reduction from the baseline year of 2000/01, and 12% below the record low for 2010.

The city has created multi-benefit park and water projects to improve water quality and quality of life in South L.A. and Highland Park as part of the supplemental environmental projects, or "SEPs," that are part of the 2004 settlement, with North Atwater Creek Park to open in April and more on the way. An SEP is part of a settlement or order that is provided in lieu of cash damages or penalties to make up for the impacts a community has suffered.

The South Central L.A. Wetlands Park, which opened in February 2012, "transformed an eyesore -- a bus lot paved in blacktop -- into a green oasis in a community that lacks parks," reports Mr. Hagekhalil. "Stormwater runs through wet lands, there are birds and other habitat, and people can enjoy and walk in a healthy place. It's across the street from a new high school. It's a huge transformation for the community."

The Garvanza Park Stormwater BMP Project in Highland Park, which opened in March, captures and cleans more than one million gallons of rain and runoff.  Water is diverted into two large cisterns under the park. Water is cleaned and filtered and soaks into the soil to replenish the groundwater and to irrigate the park. The project will help save water and keep the Arroyo Seco, L.A. River and the ocean healthy and clean. 
Garvanza Park Stormwater BMP Project in Highland Park | Photo courtesy of The City Project

Lessons Learned. This clean water case illustrates principles of equitable infrastructure: invest in people, invest in healthy communities, invest in democracy, invest in justice in and out of court. Grass roots participation requires full and fair information to work effectively with government officials, as the advisory board is doing. Access to justice through the courts is also a profoundly democratic First Amendment right that is essential to secure a place at the table for the people. Multi-benefit projects like the water, park and sewer projects here improve environmental quality and quality of life for all. The results here would not have been achieved by the city agencies alone, and not even by the attorneys for EPA, federal and state Departments of Justice, and state water board and by mainstream environmentalists. The African American community leadership and civil rights attorneys reframed the environmental issues as equal justice issues. That's why there is an environmental justice movement.   

Top photo: South L.A. Wetlands Park courtesy of The City Project

About the Author

I am a civil rights attorney. Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done.
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