Dirty Drainage Lawsuit Flows to Supreme Court

Lawsuit seeks accountability for filthy storm runoff

By Angie Crouch and Bill French
|  Tuesday, Dec 4, 2012  |  Updated 7:45 AM PDT
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A lawsuit over the filthy runoff that ends up in Santa Monica Bay after it rains will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Cities across the nation are keeping a close eye on the case because it could set a precedent on how storm water pollution is dealt with nationwide. Angie Crouch reports from Santa Monica for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2012.

Angie Crouch

A lawsuit over the filthy runoff that ends up in Santa Monica Bay after it rains will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Cities across the nation are keeping a close eye on the case because it could set a precedent on how storm water pollution is dealt with nationwide. Angie Crouch reports from Santa Monica for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2012.

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The same Los Angeles County flood control system that has been channeling storm runoff to the sea for nearly a century was built to protect residents in 84 cities from floods, not to sift through the odd assortment of trash that is flushed into the system when it rains.

Most of that trash ends up in Santa Monica Bay, where beachgoers are familiar with the signs (pictured below) warning them to stay out of the ocean after it rains.

"Los Angeles has a history of just funneling storm water pollution right into rivers and pushing it out to sea untreated," said Jessica Lass of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "No one is being held responsible for it right now."

In 2008, environmental groups like the NRDC sued Los Angeles County, seeking to hold the county's flood control district responsible for the storm water pollution.

A Federal Judge sided with Los Angeles County, but last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling. So now, the County has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

On Tuesday, attorneys for LA County will argue that the pollution comes from other cities whose storm drains empty into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. The County contends it isn't creating the pollution, it's only channeling it, so the County should not be held responsible for billions of dollars in cleanup and prevention costs.

"What’s at stake are big issues," said Bob Spencer of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. "We’re confident in the argument we’ve made, and looking forward to our day in court."

But environmental groups argue that LA County's permit under the Clean Water Act requires the County to bear the cost of the pollution.

"LA County is responsible for the storm water pollution that flows through their rivers," counters Lass. "That’s what the permit says and they’re responsible for cleaning up that pollution."

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