Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Los Angeles County and the County Flood Control District’s request to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling finding Los Angeles County liable for untreated stormwater pollution in local waterways. The decision stems from a lawsuit initiated by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Los Angeles Waterkeeper in 2008. As a result, the case will now be returned to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for further proceedings.
The County and Flood District had appealed the August 2013 decision by the Ninth Circuit, which reinstated the case against the County and the Flood Control District after an earlier Ninth Circuit opinion against the Flood Control District was unanimously reversed by the Supreme Court in January 2013.
After the Supreme Court’s reversal, the Ninth Circuit revisited its earlier opinion and held both the County and the Flood Control District liable for violating a 2001 stormwater permit based on a legal theory that the Ninth Circuit had earlier rejected. According to the County, this theory based the County’s and the Flood Control District’s liability for violation of the permit on downstream monitoring of the rivers covered by the permit, even though the monitoring reflected discharges from thousands of sources, including municipalities, sewage treatment plants and industries.
Gail Farber, chief engineer of the Flood Control District and Director of the Los Angeles County Public Works Department, said the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case was disturbing because the Ninth Circuit’s opinion assigns liability for pollution control to municipalities without considering the sources of the pollution and without evidence that the municipalities actually violated any permit.
“This could force municipalities to redirect limited public funds from other critical services to spend on controlling pollution from private and other sources who are the responsible parties,” Farber said. “Most municipal stormwater permits issued throughout the state cover multiple jurisdictions,” Farber added. “The fight for clean water is a collective priority for all stakeholders within the region and that effort includes working with the 88 cities and 140 unincorporated communities within Los Angeles to prevent runoff pollution emanating from private property from entering the region’s waterways.”
This final resolution of liability now obligates Los Angeles County to take immediate action to clean up its stormwater runoff and protect people and water quality, the NRDC said. “After six years of litigation, it is finally official: Los Angeles County must take responsibility for its polluted stormwater runoff in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers,” said Steve Fleischli, senior attorney and water program director for the NRDC. “This water quality victory puts an end to Los Angeles County’s persistent attempts to avoid liability for its massive water pollution problem, which threatens the health of millions of Southern California residents and visitors who enjoy beloved local rivers and beaches.
“Los Angeles County needs to face the facts and get to work to clean up its mess. It’s time for a cleaner water future for the region. With a trove of 21st century green infrastructure solutions, the County has no excuse not to ensure this pollution is addressed immediately.”