The city of Los Angeles conceded in a federal court filing Tuesday that it is legally responsible for more than 3,600 sewage spills that have sullied streets and polluted the ocean since 1993. Each sewage spill represents a violation of state and federal clean water laws, and the city's admission could open it up to millions of dollars in new fines.
A federal judge in December found the city liable for 297 sewage spills over the course of a year, for which the city could face up to $8 million in fines. But the city is now formally admitting responsibility for more than 12 times that many spills over the last decade -- 3,668 in all -- as part of an effort to demonstrate that it is finally owning up to the problem.
The judge must still approve the city's filing and decide whether further penalties are warranted.
The admission is the latest twist in a four-year court fight pitting Los Angeles against federal and state officials, environmental groups and homeowner organizations in Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw District and Leimert Park, where many of the spills occurred. In recent years, raw sewage has often floated to the surface of the street in front of Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles.
The plaintiffs want to force Los Angeles to repair its leaky and antiquated sewer system, which they claim has a rate of spills more than twice as high as other Southern California cities. With more than 6,700 miles of sewer lines, it is the largest municipal sewer system in the nation.
By acknowledging responsibility for all the spills, city officials said Tuesday that they hoped to move to the next phase of the case -- what should be done to prevent future spills from happening.
City officials said they also hope to avoid further fines. The city now must pay a fine of up to $27,500 for each future spill under last year's ruling by U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, who found Los Angeles had violated the federal Clean Water Act.
The city stressed in the filing that although it was admitting the violations, it was in no way conceding it should have to pay the penalties associated with breaking the law.
"The issue is, how much more do you want to beat up on the city of Los Angeles?" said Judith Wilson, director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation. "What we want to deal with are the penalties. We feel we have paid quite a bit already, and we have committed to major investments in the system."
Los Angeles is spending $650 million to upgrade its sewer system as part of a settlement with the Regional Water Quality Control Board stemming from a series of serious spills that occurred during the El Nino-stoked rains of 1998. The city has also taken numerous actions to curb future spills, such as a program to reduce the fat, oil and grease that restaurants send down drains, a common cause of clogged pipes, Wilson said.
Aside from times of heavy rainfall, most of the sewer spills that now occur are relatively minor, less than 100 gallons, she added.
"I am not suggesting that any sewer spills are OK, but we really are clamping down," Wilson said. "We are really doing our best."
Hugh Barroll, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed that Los Angeles has taken steps to reduce sewage spills but said the city needs to do much more to solve what is a significant pollution problem.
In 2001, Los Angeles reported 682 spills, nearly twice as many as in 1998, when the EPA and others first sued the city.
"What we are looking to see is the number of spills to go down, and we know that takes money and time," Barroll said. "We are not expecting miracles, but we are expecting progress, and we believe the city may need to make an even greater investment." The EPA has brought similar sewage suits against other cities, including Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and Baltimore. Barroll said that while the agency does not always seek penalties against offenders for sewage spills, "We feel the track record of Los Angeles has made them a fair target," and said additional fines against the city are "still fair game."
Los Angeles has pledged to cut the number of spills by 25% by 2005. But environmental groups note that under that target number, Los Angeles would still experience hundreds of sewer spills a year.
"When you think about raw sewage floating up into people's homes, onto streets, and to the ocean, 480 spills is unacceptable," said Steve Fleischli, executive director of the environmental group Santa Monica BayKeeper. In fighting culpability over the last four years, Los Angeles has spent more than $1.8 million on outside lawyers. That is money some of the plaintiffs -- and some city officials -- believe would have been better spent addressing the problem.
"I do hope we don't continue to spend public dollars to defend ourselves when we're in a very legally untenable position," said Los Angeles Councilman Eric Garcetti. Of the Bureau of Sanitation, he added, "I understand where their fear is coming from -- we the taxpayers are going to have to pay for all of this. But let's face it -- we're going to have to pay sooner or later."
While details of the case are still unresolved, environmental activists believe the city's admission is significant.
"Essentially, they are saying, 'OK, we're busted. We admit we broke the law 3,600 times,' " Fleischli said."You don't see that very often, especially in these clean water cases."