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Cities May Face Lawsuits Over Storm Runoff

August 12, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTSIDE — A national environmental group has put two Westside cities on notice: Clean up your storm water, or else.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has notified Beverly Hills and Culver City that it will file lawsuits against them if they do not start complying with storm-water provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. Specifically, the group wants the cities to clean up "urban runoff" from lawns, roadways and other sources that flows untreated through storm drainage systems into Santa Monica Bay.

Also threatened with lawsuits were Hermosa Beach, El Segundo, Rancho Palos Verdes and Westlake Village, as well as Caltrans and 12 private industrial firms. The cities and firms have 60 days to respond to the complaints in the "notice of intent to sue" letters sent recently by the council.

"We hope this will wake them up," said Everett DeLano, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney. "It really isn't that tough for them to comply, if they want to. There's just not that much they have to do. But we definitely aren't bluffing. We're after compliance."

Culver City Atty. Norm Herring said the city is "still evaluating" the council's complaint.

He said that the city has done its best to comply with regional runoff rules and takes seriously the group's concerns.

"If there's something else we can do to satisfy these folks, it's important to us," he said.

Herring suggested that miscommunication at the county level may be the root of the complaint. He noted that technical data sought by the group--such as the locations of possible hazardous materials and a map of Culver City's storm drainage system--was forwarded in 1990 to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, which oversees the region's storm drainage network. But whether the county made that information available to the council is unclear, Herring said.

Herring acknowledged that the city failed to provide some types of runoff data going back as far as 1980, but only because the city lacked the procedures for collecting it back then.

"They (the Natural Resources Defense Council) are procedurally correct in that some of the information has not been provided," Herring said. "But technically it is impossible (to provide) because it doesn't exist."

A Beverly Hills official said Tuesday that the complaints made about his city miss the mark.

Beverly Hills takes fastidious care of its streets and alleyways to keep trash and pollutants out of the county-owned storm drains, said Daniel Webster, director of public works.

The group's letter contended that the city failed to file reports pertaining to clean water requirements, a charge that Webster disputes. Some reports, such as the monthly rainfall report, were filed and not checked off by the county and other reports are in progress, he said.

Webster said that while the city plans to discuss the complaints with the group in a meeting facilitated by the county, he believes the "intent to sue" is an attempt to keep the pressure on cities to implement new programs rather than an evaluation of what the cities are doing now.

Caltrans attorney Anthony Ruffolo said his agency has "put a lot of effort" into complying with runoff regulations. "We're still studying this (notice of intent letter) to see where they're coming from."

DeLano said that even in dry weather, about 25 million gallons of untreated runoff flows into Santa Monica Bay every day; in a rainstorm, runoff can swell to 10 billion gallons a day. With that water come pesticides washed off lawns, motor oil from driveways, pet droppings, toxic heavy metals and tons of trash.

Storm drain systems should not be confused with municipal sewer systems, in which waste water is treated before being discharged. Except for material trapped in catch basins, usually everything in a storm drain system makes its way to the ocean without being treated.

Delano said that if cities would inform their citizens and business people about the dangers of urban runoff--and back up the education with a little enforcement--it could go a long way toward making the runoff, and the ocean, cleaner.

"If I flush my radiator into the street, it's like pouring radiator fluid directly into the ocean," DeLano said. "People need to know that. The problem is that unless you're at the beach, it's out of sight, out of mind."

DeLano said some of the 19 cities and three other government entities in the Santa Monica Bay watershed have made progress in implementing regulations and programs to control urban runoff pollution, including the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica and Los Angeles County. But he said the cities that are being threatened with lawsuits either have not made enough progress or in some cases "haven't even begun to adopt the programs they're supposed to."

The Natural Resources Defense Council also wants cities to:

* Stencil signs near storm drain openings to discourage people from pouring motor oil or coolant, grass clippings, trash and other pollutants into the storm drain.

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