Los Angeles County will not be held liable for cleaning contaminated water before it is discharged into the ocean, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Tuesday.
The decision reverses a prior ruling by a three-judge 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that sided with environmental groups and held L.A. County responsible for treating pollutants collected from the 85 cities and 104 unincorporated communities in the county before they flow into the Pacific.
“The county has managed to game the system in a way that has allowed the pollution of our waterways to go unaddressed for many years,” said Liz Crosson, executive director of L.A. Waterkeeper, one of the plaintiffs. “The county is the largest source of stormwater pollution to local waterways, and today it has escaped accountability, but only temporarily.”
The L.A. County Flood Control District operates 500 miles of open channels and 2,800 miles of storm drains that collect runoff, and it argued that the polluted water was merely conveyed from one area to the other, not created by the Flood District. In favor, the Supreme Court noted that the flow of water “between two parts of the same water body” does not constitute a pollutant discharge under the Clean Water Act.
The finding is consistent with a 2004 Supreme Court case between the South Florida Water Management District and the Miccosukee tribe in which the court determined that pumping polluted water from one part of a water body to another is not considered a “discharge of pollutants” under the CWA.
Under the CWA, “any addition of any pollutants to navigable waters from any point source” is interpreted as a discharge of a pollutants. But since the Flood District does not add any pollutants to Los Angeles area rivers, it is therefore not liable simply for the transfer of such pollutants, the Supreme Court ruled.
The decision stems from a 2008 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and L.A. Waterkeeper, alleging that the Flood District knowingly and willingly discharged contaminated water back into the rivers and was in violation of its CWA permit.
“We’ll continue to seek to hold the Los Angeles County Flood Control District responsible for cleaning up its water pollution,” said Steve Fleischli, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s national water program. “Unless something changes, stormwater pollution will continue to sicken up to one million people in Southern California every year, while local government turns a blind eye and avoids basic infrastructure solutions that will protect people, preserve water quality and increase water reserves.”
Pollutants such as copper, zinc, cyanide, aluminum and fecal bacteria flow into the ocean during storms, and the nonprofits were hoping the lawsuit would force the Flood District to implement green infrastructure to capture at least some of the contaminants.
The Flood District estimated it would have needed to spend billions to comply with an unfavorable ruling. It already works with cities and municipalities to reduce storm runoff, according to Gary Hildebrand, assistant deputy director of the Flood District.