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L.A. County beach pollution case goes to U.S. Supreme Court

June 25, 2012 |  1:11 pm

Los Angeles River

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Los Angeles County’s appeal of a lower court decision requiring the county to clean up polluted runoff that flows to the ocean through two urban waterways.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year sided with environmental groups in finding the county and its flood control district responsible for tainted water released into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper sued the county in 2008 in an effort to get the agency to treat or divert the water before it reaches the beach.

Water quality experts have long identified storm runoff -- the toxic soup of bacteria, pesticides, fertilizer and trash that is swept to the sea when it rains -- as the leading source of water pollution at Southern California beaches and a cause of swimmer illness.

The Los Angeles County Flood Control District has argued it is not to blame for the tainted runoff -- even if it were so polluted with oil and grease that it caught fire -- because it does not generate the pollutants. The agency has said the thousands of miles of storm drains and flood channels it oversees are mere conduits for upstream polluters, including dozens of cities and industrial sites.

The county appealed last year's federal appeals court ruling that it did not matter if the flood control district was the source of the pollution because it still controlled its flow toward the ocean.

L.A. County Public Works Director Gail Farber issued a statement calling water quality “an issue of national significance" that "municipalities and Flood Control Districts across the nation are working together to address. We’re very pleased that the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of our case and agreed to hear it.”

Environmental groups said they were confident the lower court’s decision would be upheld.

“This presents another opportunity to demonstrate the County’s ongoing attempts to avoid responsibility for pollution in Los Angeles,” Santa Monica Baykeeper Executive Director Liz Crosson said in a statement. “It is time that L.A. County is held accountable for the public health impacts and ecological damage its stormwater pollution creates.”

Environmental groups also had sought to hold the county responsible for pollutants swept into the Santa Clara River and Malibu Creek but failed to convince the federal appeals court.

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-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Trash is trapped near the mouth of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach. Runoff also carries bacteria, pesticides and fertilizer. Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.

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