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Supreme Court: County Liable for Polluted Rivers

A county official called the Supreme Court's decision "disturbing," saying private parties, not the county, should be held liable the pollution.

San Gabriel River. Patch file photo.
San Gabriel River. Patch file photo.

The U.S. Supreme Court today allowed a lower court ruling to stand that found Los Angeles County is responsible for cleaning up the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

By declining to take up the county's appeal, the high court sided with a previous finding that untreated stormwater and urban runoff discharged into various watercourses resulted in excessive levels of aluminum, copper, cyanide, zinc and fecal bacteria in region's two main waterways.

A county official called the Supreme Court's decision "disturbing," saying private parties, not the county, should be held liable the pollution.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper sued Los Angeles County and its Flood Control District in 2008 for violations of water quality standards outlined in the county's Clean Water Act.

Last year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found pollution levels in the waterways in excess of allowable limits.

"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, director of the NRDC's water program. "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."

The case will return to federal court in Los Angeles for further proceedings.

Gail Farber, chief engineer of the county Flood Control District and director of the Department of Public Works, said the Supreme Court's decision was disturbing, because the Ninth Circuit's opinion assigns liability to cities without considering the sources of the pollution and without evidence the municipalities actually violated any permit.

"This could force municipalities to redirect limited public funds from other critical services to spend on controlling pollution from private and other sources who are the responsible parties," Farber said. "Most municipal stormwater permits issued throughout the state cover multiple jurisdictions. The fight for clean water is a collective priority for all stakeholders within the region and that effort includes working with the 88 cities and 140 unincorporated communities within Los Angeles to prevent runoff."

The pollution doesn't stop at the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, both of which empty into the ocean, Fleischli said.

Stormwater pollution is created when rain mixes with debris, chemicals, dirt, and other pollutants and flows into storm drains, waterways and ultimately the ocean.

Anything that enters a storm drain is discharged into the water used for swimming, fishing and recreation.

"Los Angeles County needs to face the facts and get to work to clean up its mess," Fleischli said. "It's time for a cleaner water future for the region. With a trove of 21st century, green infrastructure solutions, the county has no excuse not to ensure this pollution is addressed immediately."

—City News Service

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