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Greens Want SoCal Clean Water Law Enforced

LOS ANGELES (CN) - California illegally exempts 84 cities in Los Angeles County from stormwater discharge rules and lets them just work on the plans, no matter how long it takes, environmentalists claim in court.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Los Angeles Waterkeeper sued the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Los Angeles Region in Superior Court on July 24.

"Stormwater is the number one cause of water quality impairment in Southern California," attorney Steven Fleischli with the National Resources Defense Counsel told Courthouse News.

"We are very disappointed to see the state back off" on the stringent pollution requirements established by previous permits, he said.

The environmentalists claim the permits allow Southern California cities to dump illegal amounts of contaminated stormwater, endangering the environment and public health.

"When it rains in a densely populated urban area like Los Angeles County, the water flows over streets, parking lots, commercial sites, and other impervious surfaces, collecting pollutants such as metals, trash, fecal matter, and pesticides," the complaint states. "This polluted stormwater then flows into a vast storm sewer system, which transports it through pipes and channels and eventually dumps it, untreated, into rivers and the ocean. These polluted discharges are dangerous to human health and harm the environment."

Common pollutants include arsenic, lead, toxic pesticides, viruses and bacteria, nitrogen, hydrocarbons, silt, and salts, according to the National Resources Defense Council Web page on stormwater pollution.

Urban stormwater runoff equals and often exceeds sewage plants and industrial factories as sources of water contamination. Without proper regulation and control, stormwater runoff can clog drinking water reservoirs with silt, destroy fish and amphibian habitats, close commercial fisheries and damage homes during flash floods, according to the stormwater page.

The Clean Water Act tasks states with establishing quality standards for water bodies within their boundaries. They also must identify water bodies that do not meet these standards and create "total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), which define the maximum amount of a pollutant that can be discharged, or 'loaded,' into the body of water from all pollution sources before water quality standards are exceeded," the complaint states.

Cities and other operators of sewer systems can obtain discharge permits under the Clean Water Act's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), to dump polluted stormwater into water so long as pollution levels remain below government-established pollution limits.

Permits last for five years and then undergo mandatory review by the State Board. The NPDES program includes an "anti-backsliding provision" that prevents permits from being modified to allow discharge limitations less stringent than the previous one, especially if doing so would degrade water quality, the complaint states.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board issued stormwater discharge permits to several L.A. County cities in 1990. Despite prohibition in the permits, the cities "repeatedly violated that prohibition, causing serious human health harms and environmental impairment in Southern California water bodies," the complaint states.

The defendants also shirked their mandatory duty to review the 2001 permit, which applied to 84 cities in the Los Angeles County area, and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District - it took them 11 years to conduct the review, more than twice as long as the legal limit.

Despite numerous violations, the 2012 permits let cities bypass pollution limits for local water bodies, even those that are severely contaminated, so long as the cities are drafting management plans to "eventually" meet those pollution limits, according to the complaint.

Under voluntary plans, cities choose whatever measures seem best to them to control pollution from stormwater runoff, according to the complaint.

Cities working on their management programs are considered in compliance for pollutants not covered by discharge maximums even if the discharges violate state water quality standards, the groups say.

The cities are considered in compliance for pollutants that are covered by such maximums "so long as [they] retain most of the stormwater from most storms, regardless of whether the remaining stormwater that escapes causes violations of pollution limits in local water bodies," according to the complaint.

Moreover, the groups say, it will most likely take years - if not decades - for the cities to finish their management plans, so they will be able to pollute during that time with near impunity.

Because the 2012 permits allow these violations, it is less stringent than previous permits and therefore violates the Clean Water Act's anti-backsliding provision, as well as state and federal laws prohibiting the degradation of water quality, the complaint states.

The groups appealed the Regional Board's adoption of the 2012 permit and the State Board's April 2015 draft order approving the permit. Though the State Board did make minor changes to the permit, in June it issued a final order determining that the permit is consistent with the Clean Water Act and other anti-degradation policies.

"Respondents prejudicially abused their discretion," the complaint states. "They failed to proceed in the manner required by law, their conclusions are not supported by their findings, and their findings are not supported by the evidence."

The defendants did not immediately return requests for comment Tuesday.

The groups seek declaratory judgment and want the permit's unlawful provisions set aside until it complies with state and federal water quality laws.

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