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Caltrans Retreats on Criticism of Runoff Measures

In a court settlement, the agency will notify thousands that it shouldn't have dismissed treatments as ineffective.

October 17, 2002|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Settling court allegations that it tried to sabotage a major study of ways to treat toxic highway runoff, Caltrans will track down and notify thousands of people that the agency's public criticism of storm-water control methods was premature.

The giant transportation agency agreed it jumped the gun by issuing reports and presentations at professional conferences that described many treatment methods on state highways as ineffective and prohibitively expensive.

As part of the settlement, Caltrans will send clarification notices to its own employees, consultants, university staffers who deal with storm-water issues, publishers of a trade magazine and those who attended national forums in which agency officials criticized storm-water treatment.

Contaminated water running off roads, farmland, industrial sites and urban areas has emerged as an enormous source of pollution for waterways and the ocean. Nationally, there are ongoing controversies about how to control storm water and the cost of treating it.

In May, two environmental groups charged in U.S. District Court that Caltrans was conducting a propaganda campaign to discredit court-ordered research on ways to filter polluted runoff from roadways. The agency and environmental groups are studying 38 sites in Southern California where pollution controls are being tested. A report is due out early next year.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica BayKeeper alleged that Caltrans, instead of remaining neutral as required during such research, spent millions of dollars to challenge an array of controls designed to check contaminated runoff.

Further, the groups contend that the cost of treatment might be far less than Caltrans reports indicate.

"We believe by either intention or omission there was a broad effort or, at a minimum, the release of a lot of information by Caltrans that confused people about the efficacy of storm-water treatment," said David Beckman, an NRDC attorney in Los Angeles.

"Let's correct the record. People should withhold judgment until the study is out."

The settlement is the latest action in a 10-year-old lawsuit brought by the NRDC and BayKeeper to force Caltrans to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Over the years, District Judge Edward Rafeedie has repeatedly ordered Caltrans to obey the storm-water requirements of the law.

The orders include a five-year study of the costs and effectiveness of various treatment techniques that filter highway runoff. They include roadside strips of sand and vegetation, detention basins, vaults of compost or minerals, and simple devices to catch trash before it enters storm drains.

Caltrans attorneys deny the agency engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the study, which has been described as one of the most comprehensive looks at storm-water controls. They said NRDC and BayKeeper wanted to stop public debate and prevent the release of publicly funded research that challenged their views.

As part of the settlement, Caltrans admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to issue potentially thousands of clarification notices and establish a panel of storm-water experts to resolve future disputes over the pending study out of court.

"This will help us continue to build on a more positive working relationship with NRDC and the environmental community," said Brent Felker, chief engineer for Caltrans.

"We worked hard on this agreement, and we have worked hard to improve mobility and the environment in California. We don't get enough credit for that," he said.

The notification will state that Caltrans' conclusions about the outcome of the court-ordered study "are premature. Such conclusions are still the subject of ongoing analysis and discussions between" the NRDC and Caltrans.

Also, the letter will state that analysis and conclusions about how storm-water treatment devices will be used and whether Caltrans should install them are not final.

The NRDC contends that Caltrans publicized its in-house cost estimates and criticized storm-water treatment at professional gatherings in California, Minnesota, Nevada, Florida and Washington, D.C.

Caltrans officials said they hope the settlement will reduce the conflict and tension that has marked more than a decade of court battles with the NRDC and BayKeeper.

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