L.A. County liable for storm-water pollution, court rules

A federal appeals court dealt Los Angeles County a blow on Thursday in a long-running lawsuit over storm-water pollution when it issued an opinion that the county is liable for excessively high levels.

Environmental groups sued the county and its flood-control district in 2008 over pollution in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, saying

the entities had violated storm-water permits based on high pollution readings at monitoring stations in the rivers.


County officials argued that they are not primarily to blame, because dozens of cities discharge polluted runoff upstream from the monitoring sites.

In 2011, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county was liable for pollution in the rivers.

The county appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in January that water flowing from one “concrete” section of the river to another section cannot be deemed a “discharge” of pollutants and sent the case back to the appeals court. The high court did not rule on other issues raised in the lawsuit.

The 9th Circuit issued an opinion Thursday saying that the county is still liable for high pollution levels detected at the monitoring stations.

The panel found that accepting the county’s interpretation of the permit requirements would lead to “an unreasonable result.”

“Under the County Defendants’ reading of the Permit, individual Permittees could discharge an unlimited amount of pollutants ... but never be held liable for those discharges based on the results of the emissions monitoring, even though that monitoring is explicitly intended to assess whether Permittees are in compliance” with discharge limitations, the opinion said.

The case will go back to the federal district court to determine how the county will be required to fix the violations unless the county appeals again.

Mark Pestrella, assistant director of the county’s Department of Public Works, said the agency is not ready to give up.

“We can’t consider just having [the case] sit as it’s been decided,” he said. Pestrella said the court was taking a “literal, black and white” interpretation of a complicated issue.

“This is what happens when the courts get involved with nature,” he said. “The problem that we are facing does not work well when you prescribe one specific method to comply, and the NRDC is well aware of that.”

Steve Fleischli, senior attorney and director of plaintiff Natural Resources Defense Council’s national water program, called the decision “a significant milestone.”

“I think this case demonstrates that there is accountability built into the system, and if the county avoids that, they will be held liable,” he said.

Separately, the county’s Board of Supervisors had considered putting a measure to voters asking for a new parcel fee that would go toward storm-water cleanup projects, but members decided to shelve the initiative in March after it drew widespread public opposition.