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Supreme Court Hands Victory for Environmentalists in L.A. Urban Runoff Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined Los Angeles County and the County Flood Control District's request to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found Los Angeles County liable for untreated stormwater pollution. The decision effectively allows the original ruling to remain in place, holding the Los Angeles County liable for water pollution at the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.

"After six years of litigation, it is finally official: Los Angeles County must take responsibility for its polluted stormwater runoff in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers," said Steve Fleischli, senior attorney and water program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a statement. "This water quality victory puts an end to Los Angeles County's persistent attempts to avoid liability for its massive water pollution problem, which threatens the health of millions of Southern California residents and visitors who enjoy beloved local rivers and beaches."

Urban runoff is one the major causes of water pollution in Southern California. As water flows over concrete, roofs and streets, it picks up dirt, oil, pesticides, and litter, draining it toward local waterways and eventually out to the ocean.

In 2008, the NRDC and the Los Angeles Waterkeeper filed a lawsuit for that untreated runoff. It held the Los Angeles County and the County Flood Control District responsible for documented violations of the County's Clean Water Act permit in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers since 2003.

"There is no finding that the county or district is responsible," clarified Howard Gest, outside counsel for the county. Gest explained that the monitoring stations that showed exceedances that were the basis for the original lawsuit included waste produced from industrial facilities and wastewater plants upstream. It is still to be decided in the district court if the county is liable for an amount of pollution.

"The county doesn't have to clean up anyone else's pollution. Only their own," wrote Fleischli in response. "But they can't walk away from a problem they undoubtedly contribute to (they are by far the largest operator of the stormdrain system) by saying that other people are polluting too."

Los Angeles once argued that it couldn't be held responsible for pollution that could have originated from a thousand other points up the Los Angeles watershed, which was an argument that held no water in trial. "The trial court can make sure apportionment is fair, and with liability now established, this decision helps ensure that the County will be responsible for cleaning up its share of the problem."

In the meantime, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works are already considering some measures that may also help alleviate the excesses that are at issue, such as enforcing low-impact development regulations, which encourage large projects to retain water on-site to be cleaned.

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