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Federal Appeals Court Says L.A. County is Liable for Waterway Pollution

In the latest chapter in the long-running question of who is responsible for cleaning up water pollution on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, on August 8 the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found Los Angeles County and the County Flood Control District liable for excessive amounts of pollutants on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers. The decision comes after the Supreme Court returned the case to the Ninth Circuit in January.

When the Supreme Court heard the case, it determined that "discharge of pollutants does not occur when polluted water flows from one portion of a river that is navigable water of the United States, through a concrete channel or other engineered improvement in the river, and then into a lower portion of the same river." But, Steve Fleischli, Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) national Water Program, said nobody had disputed that the County's monitoring of water pollution levels didn't mean they weren't responsible for pollution tolerances exceeding prescribed levels.

"Under terms of NPDES permit that LA County holds, the monitoring scheme was designed to measure compliance to water quality standards," explained Fleischli. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is a permit enacted under the Clean Water Act, which institutes certain controls that limit the amount of harmful pollutants from being washed into local waterways. It is a permit held by 84 cities, County of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District.

A summary of the Ninth District opinion explains that because the District's monitoring data showed pollutants past agreed upon levels, it is the District's responsibility to clean up the mess per the permit's regulations.

Five days after the release of this ruling, a Los Angeles federal court judge threw out a $1-billion lawsuit against Disney, purporting the company had dumped into a storm drain near its studios in Burbank. Though the case looks like it could set a negative precedent for the NRDC, Fleischli dismisses it. "They are completely unrelated. That case isn't about the Clean Water Act. Different claims, different facts, different issues, different parties."

A litigation process that started as far back as 2008, this decision is far from sealing the deal, but it is a step in the right direction. The District now has a few options before it would roll up its sleeves to clean up the mess on the rivers, explains Fleischli. The District could petition for the case to be reheard in the Ninth Circuit or it could also appeal for another Supreme Court hearing.

Barring those countermoves, the Ninth Circuit has remanded the case to a lower district court to hash out what the District needs to do to remedy the situation. "Stormwater runoff is the number one cause of water quality problems in Southern California and LA county is largest operator of these stornwater sewers in the area. They're a very significant source of pollution to these waterways," said Fleischli. "There are a lot of things they could do clean up the mess on the river. They could deploy green infrastructures such as green roofs, grassy swales, and reduce the amount of impervious surfaces throughout the county."

Keep up to date on the issue on the NRDC website.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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