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Activists Finding Fault With Runoff Abatement Effort

Orange County is accused of stacking an advisory board with the very industries to be policed, and stricter rules are wanted.

August 22, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Almost three years ago, Orange County asked developers, contractors and oil companies to join a government task force to help reduce storm water runoff but largely overlooked environmentalists, despite recommendations from state regulators that they be included.

During a hearing today, the task force is expected to come under fire from environmental activists when the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency, decides whether to approve the county's proposed storm water control plan for coping with the effects of construction and redevelopment projects.

The activists criticize both the makeup of the task force and the extent of the county's proposed runoff cures.

The panel was established in late 2000 to help the county meet federal rules for reducing pollution from urban runoff, which has emerged as the No. 1 water quality threat to the state's ocean waters.

Runoff can create a grimy mix of trash, oil, rubber particles, antifreeze, soil, detergents, pesticides, solvents, and raw sewage that contains viruses and bacteria -- all of which can harm aquatic life and smother sea-bottom habitat with silt from erosion.

If a plan is not in place by October, the county will have to comply with more stringent and costly state standards that require the installation of devices to filter and control urban runoff.

Though not suggesting that the regional water board reject the plan, its staff members have recommended that the plan be approved only if a new and more environmentally balanced task force reviews key elements of it.

The county task force's many industry members include some that have criticized storm water requirements. Earlier this year, one member, the Building Industry Assn., lost a lawsuit in San Diego County challenging such regulations.

The panel also includes representatives of nine cities, the county, and local government agencies that discharge or deal with urban runoff, such as water and sanitation districts.

County officials defend the makeup of the task force, saying its members are technical experts and represent those whose interests will be affected by the plan, which will spell out how developers and government agencies should prevent runoff from polluting coastal and inland waters.

Environmentalists say the advisory panel has been unfairly packed with those who will be regulated or hurt financially by storm water requirements.

"It looks like the county has picked all the foxes to watch the chicken coop," said David Beckman, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization that has been heavily involved in storm water issues in California for years.

"Does the county seriously want to reduce storm water runoff when it has placed sworn enemies of these regulations on the task force?" Beckman said.

The regional water board, whose jurisdiction includes about half of Orange County, is responsible for issuing discharge permits under requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. The county's permit was granted in January 2002 on condition that a storm water management plan be developed.

County officials say they set up the task force to obtain technical advice, not to map out policy.

Though he viewed the NRDC as "relatively antagonistic" to the county, Larry McKenney, a watershed and coastal resource manager for the county's Public Facilities and Resources Department, said he could not give a definitive answer as to why NRDC or other environmental groups were not appointed to the panel.

"They were not actively excluded. We just did not have anyone in mind at NRDC," McKenney said. "Technical expertise was sought, and industry folks, because the plan was going to fall on them."

McKenney pointed out that his department occasionally discusses storm water issues with Orange County Coastkeeper, a group that seeks to protect the local coast and watersheds, and that an environmentalist, William Roley, a consultant from Laguna Beach, is on the task force. Roley, however, does not represent any major environmental organization.

Other environmental groups, McKenney said, have had ample opportunity to express their thoughts on the runoff plan to the regional water board.

But how much to control storm water has become a controversial question throughout the state. In Los Angeles County, at least 44 cities and a host of taxpayer organizations formed the Coalition for Practical Regulation, which contends that requirements are burdensome and expensive.

The NRDC has identified what it considers to be 11 problem areas in the county's proposal, including a failure to force cities to update their general plans to reflect storm water requirements and excusing builders of small developments from assessing the cumulative impacts of their projects.

Several cities and the county, McKenney said, already are reevaluating their general plans. He said county planners should study the cumulative effects of smaller projects to avoid having hundreds of builders do individual assessments.

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