Regional water officials have ordered Caltrans to stop tainted storm-water runoff from flowing off the San Joaquin Hills toll road into Laguna Canyon, which sends the water into the ocean.
"When the [toll road] was approved, Caltrans still saw their mission as getting cars as safely and speedily as possible from point A to B with no concern for the environment whatsoever," said Wayne Baglin, a San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board member and Laguna Beach city councilman.
"Those days are over. They can't be building roads that create pollution. They have to be accountable."
The tentative cease-and-desist order, issued June 19, must be adopted by five of the six board members at their July 18 meeting in San Diego. Adoption is considered highly likely, given the recent activism of the nine regional water boards throughout the state, especially in Southern California.
In November, for instance, the Santa Ana regional board ordered the California Department of Transportation to stop runoff on Pacific Coast Highway from flowing into the fragile marine ecosystem at Crystal Cove State Park near Corona del Mar.
Caltrans appealed to the state Water Resources Control Board, which upheld the regional board's order in April.
Caltrans spokeswoman Beth Beeman said the agency just received a copy of the proposed order from the San Diego board.
"We are reviewing it and working on our evaluation and hope to come up with a solution that's beneficial to all parties," she said.
The order states that 20 filters designed to remove pollutants from the roadway's storm-water runoff are improperly cleaned, essentially making them useless.
The contaminants include lead from exhaust, copper dust from brakes and oil that has leaked onto the toll road.
"Due to the lack of adequate maintenance . . . Caltrans has violated and continues to violate" its storm-water permit, the order states.
Under the order, Caltrans must:
* Immediately begin fixing all runoff holding basins and filters along the toll road.
* Submit a tentative schedule for completion of all repairs by Aug. 31.
* Immediately implement a maintenance and monthly inspection program.
* Submit a water-quality monitoring program by Oct. 30 that determines the quality of highway runoff, the ability of the filters to remove pollutants and the likelihood that the runoff is polluting the ocean. The runoff must be tested for at least 18 contaminants, including chromium, copper, lead and nickel.
* Submit quarterly progress reports, the first due July 31.
Caltrans faces fines of up to $5,000 per day if the order is violated, said Christopher Means, an environmental specialist with the San Diego regional board.
Laguna Beach City Engineer Steve May said he wasn't too concerned about the runoff. During summer, the water in Laguna Canyon is diverted to sewers, where it undergoes treatment. During winter, the runoff is only a fraction of the massive amount of storm water that runs down the creek and into the ocean off Laguna's popular Main Beach.
"I don't think it's a significant factor to water pollution in our local area," he said.
But activist Roger von Butow, founder of Clean Water Now!, said even if the pollution doesn't affect people, it still affects creatures, habitats and ecosystems.
"Anything that contributes to pollution in a sensitive habitat like Laguna Canyon Creek has to be addressed," he said. "It could overload the creek as far as its ability to cleanse itself."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Regional water officials ordered Caltrans to stop letting dirty runoff flow from the San Joaquin Hills toll road into Laguna Canyon.
Runoff from road empties into drain
Sediment settles to bottom of holding pond
Filter removes oils, grease, metals
Runoff flows into waterway, then ocean
Water officials say 20 of the 39 filters are so poorly maintained they're useless (some locations have more than one filter)
Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times
Source: James Lenhart, Stormwater Management Inc.