California Cornered for Costs of Bus-Stop Trash Cans

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The California Supreme Court on Monday sided with Los Angeles County in a dispute with state regulators over the costs of implementing urban stormwater plans.
     A majority of the Golden State’s high court overturned an appellate ruling that Los Angeles County could not recover costs from the state for inspecting and monitoring businesses’ waste discharges or be reimbursed for installing thousands of trash cans at public transit stops.
     At issue were costs involved with Los Angeles County’s stormwater plan, which was approved and implemented in 2001. Included in the permit was a clause requiring the county to inspect certain facilities during the first five-year term of the permit, to make sure that businesses and construction sites were following local pollution laws.
     Along with periodic inspections, the state required the county to mount and maintain trash cans at each public transit stop within the county’s 84 participating cities.
     Once the stormwater program was implemented, several LA County cities petitioned for reimbursement of costs but were ultimately denied by the state. The state argued that the inspections and trash cans were necessary to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and thus federally required.
     California convinced a trial and appeals courts that while it did approve the county’s permit, several of the conditions were federally mandated and therefore not up for state reimbursement. It claimed that in issuing the permit, it was essentially approving the requirements it assumed “would have been imposed” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
     The panel disagreed, ruling that the state didn’t need to include the trash cans and could have done a more thorough fiscal analysis of the county’s plan before approving it.
     “It is simply not the case that, because a condition was in the permit, it was, ipso facto, required by federal law,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the majority.
     Corrigan also noted that state and federal clean-water laws don’t require local agencies to inspect commercial facilities. She pointed to an alleged offer by the state’s water board to reimburse the county for inspection costs.
     “Finally, there was evidence [regulators] offered to pay the county to inspect industrial facilities. There would have been little reason to make that offer if federal law required the county to inspect the facilities,” Corrigan wrote in the 27-page majority opinion.
     While the majority overturned the lower courts’ ruling that the issues were federally mandated it remanded some of the additional issues back to the lower courts.
     Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar wrote a concurring and dissenting opinion that blasted the Commission on State Mandates for its overall handling of the argument. The commission originally ruled in the county’s favor but did so “parsimoniously” and without examining all of the evidence, he said.
     Cuellar contends that the issue should be remanded to the commission for reexamination, not the trial or appellate courts.
     “The commission applied the wrong framework for its analysis. It failed to consider all the evidence whether the permit conditions were necessary for compliance with federal law. The commission compounded its error by relying on an interpretation of the Clean Water Act that misconstrues the federal statutory scheme governing the state permitting process,” Cuellar wrote.
     Justices Goodwin Liu and Leondra Kruger joined Cuellar’s concur-and-dissent. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Kathryn Werdegar and Ming Chin rounded out the majority.

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