Wednesday, January 9, 2013
High Court Rules for LAFCD in Dispute Over Runoff
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Clean Water Act does not render the Los Angeles Flood Control District responsible for billions of gallons of polluted water that have flowed into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, and eventually the Pacific Ocean, after heavy rainfalls, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices were unanimous in overturning a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Santa Monica Baykeeper—now known as L.A.Waterkeeper—and the National Resources Defense Council. The environmental groups argued that levels of bacteria from animal feces and toxic metals frequently exceed water quality standards.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said the district’s “municipal separate storm sewer system” or MS4—a drainage system that collects, transports, and discharges storm water—complied with its National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.
The Ninth Circuit had held that the district was liable for the discharge that occurred when polluted water detected at monitoring stations flowed out of the concrete-lined portions of the rivers, where the monitoring stations are located, into lower, unlined portions of the same rivers.
But in a narrow opinion, Ginsburg said the panel’s ruling could not be squared with earlier case law holding that the flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway does not qualify as a “discharge of a pollutant” under the CWA.
The justice quoted a Second Circuit decision, which held that “if one takes a ladle of soup from a pot, lifts it above the pot, and puts it back into the pot, one has not ‘added’ soup or anything else to the pot.”
Timothy Coates of Greines Martin Stein & Richland argued for the district. He called the ruling a “short but important opinion for the District, reinforcing that it was fulfilling its obligations under the Clean Water Act.”
Gail Farber, who serves as chief engineer of the district and director of the county Department of Public Works, said the ruling validates the district’s role in storm water management.
“Our work is not done,” Farber said in a statement. “The fight for clean water is ongoing and remains a collective priority for the District and our many water quality stakeholders within the region.”
She added that the district “remains committed to working with our partners in support of clean water, healthy rivers, lakes and beaches.
The case is Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 11-406.
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