Greens Claim California Lets|Polluters Monitor Water Quality

     SAN LUIS OBISPO (CN) – A California regional water quality board illegally delegates monitoring duties to private growers on the Central Coast, environmentalists claim in court.
     Carmen Zamora and the Environmental Law Foundation sued the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on May 8 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. They seek writ of mandate ordering the Water Quality Control Board to vacate its so-called Workplan, which allows the Central Coast Groundwater Coalition to test drinking water for nitrates. The nonprofit Central Coast Groundwater Coalition is named as a real party in interest in the case.
     According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the major sources of nitrates in drinking water are runoff from fertilizers, leaking septic tanks, sewage, and erosion of natural deposits.
     Infants are especially at risk for illnesses related to nitrates, the EPA says. Illnesses related to nitrate pollution may include cancer, thyroid, spleen and kidney disease and the potentially fatal “blue baby” syndrome.
     “Small farmworker communities who rely on groundwater for their drinking water bear the brunt of this pollution and are most vulnerable to its effects,” the plaintiffs say in the complaint.
     The defendant regional board was created to protect the public by overseeing nitrate pollution, notifying water users and seeking compliance reporting from polluters.
     But in 2013 the regional board approved a plan for Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties in which it abdicated its duties to the coalition – “an organization consisting solely of growers and their representatives,” the plaintiffs say.
     The coalition conducts well sampling, interprets the results, decides whether to notify dischargers and exclusively receives reports of polluters’ compliance measures, which the public does not see, the environmentalists claim.
     “The information has become secret. It is barely available to the Regional Board and expressly not available to anyone else, including the affected public and well users,” according to the complaint.
     Coalition members pay a fee per acre to join, and the coalition acts as their voice to the water board, tests the wells they want tested, and compiles the data for them, the Santa Maria Sun newspaper reported.
     The coalition believes data should be shared among growers and the regional board, but not beyond that, due to privacy issues, according to the Sun.
     Parry Klassen, the coalition’s executive director, did not respond to an email from Courthouse News. But he told the Sun they are worried how certain parties would use data, such as holding a single grower accountable for a problem that has existed for as much as a century.
     “We’re worried that someone’s going to come sue you for poisoning your farmworkers,” he said. “There’s just this fear among agricultural producers that will happen.”
     Farmers won’t ignore poisonous water, he told the Sun, as that would poison their own workers.
     “There’s no motivation to not do the right thing. I mean, who wants their best irrigator to get sick? And I think that’s something that gets overlooked.”
     Zamora, who lives in a Soledad community surrounded by agricultural land, says her community’s groundwater is contaminated by nitrates.
     “Ms. Zamora is concerned about her community’s lack of access to safe drinking water and believes small communities like hers need to have access to information about where contaminated water exists and to be able to verify that residents have been notified about their water being contaminated,” the complaint states.
     She claims that the Workplan insulates growers who pay to be part of the coalition from regional board oversight and public disclosure of data. Even the data the coalition sends to the regional board keeps polluters anonymous, Zamora says in the complaint.
     The regional board has nine part-time members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
     By delegating the water monitoring, the regional board has surrendered its policing powers to a private entity, against public policy, Zamora says.
     “Because the coalition is not a public agency, its enforcement actions against its members have no legal force,” according to the complaint. It claims that the Workplan does not provide sufficient feedback mechanisms to ensure it’s working.
     The plaintiffs want the regional board to post the monitoring results on a state website.
     The plaintiffs are represented by Nathaniel Kane with the Environmental Law Foundation in Oakland.

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