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U.S. District Court Judge Finds in Favor of U.S. EPA, LARWQCB and Other Co-plaintiffs in Los Angeles Sewer Spill Case
Release Date: 12/23/2002
Contact Information: Mark Merchant, U.S. EPA, 415-947-4297
Ruling means the city is liable for nearly 300 sewage spills
LOS ANGELES The U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board today announced that U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew, ruling on a summary judgment motion, found the city of Los Angeles liable for 297 violations of the federal Clean Water Act, all of which were sewage spills.
This suit was originally filed by Santa Monica Baykeeper. The EPA and the LARWQCB joined the suit in January 2001. A number of local community groups joined in the summer of 2001.
Under the Clean Water Act, Judge Lew can now penalize Los Angeles as much as $27,500 for each spill, a total exceeding $8 million. The actual fine and measures to prevent further spills will be decided by the judge at trial, which is scheduled for January 2004.
In addition to the 297 spills ruled on today by Judge Lew, Los Angeles has reported at least 2,000 more spills over the last several years. The EPA, the LARWQCB and other co-plaintiffs will move for a liability ruling on these additional spills.
"I am extremely pleased by Judge Lew's ruling," said Wayne Nastri, the EPA's administrator for the Pacific Southwest Region. "Sewage spills are a major source of pollution and a significant threat to human health. Making sure municipalities manage their sewage properly through compliance assistance, enforcement or even court action if need be moves us toward the EPA's goal of purer water, cleaner air and better protection of public health."
Between January 2001 and July 2002 the lawsuit was stayed by the court so the plaintiffs and the city could attempt to reach a negotiated settlement. That failed, and the stay was lifted. In September 2002, the EPA and its co-plaintiffs filed the motion for summary judgment on 297 spills that the city reported as discharging into waterways between July 1, 2001 and July 31, 2002. The waterways that the sewage spilled into included the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles Harbor, Ballona Creek and Santa Monica Bay.
In addition to fouling waterways, many spills have simply ended up on city streets and pose a real public health risk for those who may come in contact with it.
"The people who live in Los Angeles experience one of the highest rates of sewage spills in the country ... averaging two a day. These raw sewage spills result in beach closures, threats to public health and devastation to our waterways and to aquatic life," said LARWQCB Chair Fran Diamond. "The Regional Water Quality Board believes that this has to be corrected as soon as possible. At the very least, the public should expect their basic city services to include protection from raw sewage spills at their beaches and in their neighborhoods."
On Nov. 3, 2001, 205,000 gallons spilled into Ballona Creek because of a power outage at a sewage pump station. This resulted in closure of several miles of Santa Monica Bay beaches. On Jan. 9, 2002, 75,000 gallons spilled to Los Angeles Harbor. As recently as November 2002 there were eight large spills, ranging from 500 to 2,400 gallons, and 45 smaller spills. Twenty-four of the November spills reached the city's storm drain system which flows to area waterbodies.
Today Judge Lew specifically ruled these spills violated the Clean Water Act and the city's wastewater discharge permit.
Los Angeles and neighboring beach communities throughout Southern California experience some of the country's highest rates of beach health advisories and closures because of sewage spills and contaminated storm water runoff.
Los Angeles' sewer system includes 6,500 miles of pipes and dozens of pump stations that collect and convey both household and industrial wastewater to four sewage treatment plants, including the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant.
With this lawsuit, the EPA and its co-plaintiffs are seeking a firm commitment from the city to reduce sewage spills and repair and improve its system.
Los Angeles has about 50 spills per month. At 10 spills per 100 miles of sewer per year, the Los Angeles sewage spill rate is more than double the median spill rate for Southern California municipalities.
The city is spending about $700 million for repairs and upgrades to improve the system's wet weather capacity problems but needs to do more to control blockage spills, which represent more than 90 percent of the spills, and sewer odors.
The EPA's lawsuit against Los Angeles is one of several cases taken by the Agency against cities for sewage spills. Other cases include lawsuits against Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Baltimore, Jefferson County (Birmingham), Ala. and Mobile, Ala. In April 2002, EPA issued an administrative order to the city of San Diego for a similar pattern of sewage spills, and San Diego recently increased their residential sewer fees to pay for sewer upgrades needed to reduce spills.
For more information, visit:
www.epa.gov/owow Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds
www.epa.gov/npdes/sso Sanitary Sewer Overflows
www.epa.gov/region09/water Water Programs in the Pacific Southwest