The California Air Resources Board has ruled that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is solely responsible for controlling the choking dust storms that arise from the dry Owens Lake bed.
The board said the DWP must take additional air pollution control measures on 2.9 square miles of the dry lake, which was drained to provide water to Los Angeles. The powder-fine dust arising from the bed often exceeds federal health standards.
The DWP argues that it has already reduced dust pollution 90% at a cost to ratepayers of $1.2 billion. The additional measures will cost an estimated $400 million, the utility said.
The board's decision Monday aligns with the findings of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which had called for the added measures. "It's a complete victory," said Ted Schade, chief enforcement officer for the district.
Still pending, however, is a federal court lawsuit the DWP filed this year to limit its obligation to control dust from the vast alkaline playa, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
Schade said the board's decision will become "an important part of our defense in the federal lawsuit. I believe a court will look kindly on the district's position in this matter. After all, it's a public health issue."
James N. Goldstene, the board's executive officer, ruled that the DWP must abide by conditions of 1998 and 2007 settlement agreements with Great Basin to stop the massive dust storms that arose after it opened its aqueduct 99 years ago.
In a statement, DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said the board's decision to "simply accept Great Basin's position was not unexpected."
The lawsuit accuses Great Basin and Schade of giving "other responsible parties" a "free ride" when it comes to Owens Lake's dust problems, while forcing the utility to waste billions of gallons of water to control dust with shallow flooding.
In addition to Great Basin, the lawsuit names as defendants the California Lands Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as defendants.
The lawsuit seeks to transfer a portion of the costs of controlling dust from city ratepayers to the state lands commission and the federal bureau, which own 10 square miles of the lake bed.
Goldstene pointed out that the city aqueduct diverted nearly all the water flowing into the 110-square-mile eastern Sierra lake, reducing it to a small permanent brine pool surrounded by dry alkali soils. "During high winds significant quantities of sand particles are blown across the lake bed surface, resulting in dust plumes of particulate matter 10 microns or less in diameter," Goldstene said.
Particulate air emissions lodge deep in the lungs, causing respiratory injuries and additional risks to children and the elderly.