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Inland Cities Scolded Over Trash Suit

A federal judge dismisses the group's 'meritless' challenge to rules that require cleanup of garbage that is carried to beaches in storm drains.

May 22, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Calling their legal arguments "scattershot," and "meritless" and "especially reprehensible," a federal court judge has tossed out a lawsuit from 22 Southern California inland cities that challenged rules forcing them to clean up trash that spills from their sidewalks and streets into storm drains and then to local beaches.

The 27-page ruling from U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong in San Francisco is significant because it dismisses the first of 13 lawsuits that challenge a suite of new state and federal rules designed to clean up streams, rivers and beaches.

The judge repeatedly scolded the cities for wasting her time with a "careless" drafting of "allegations in scattershot fashion in the hope that something will slip by defendants undetected and 'stick.' "

Such an approach comes close to violating federal court procedures, the judge wrote, concluding that arguments "are so patently meritless that the court fails to understand why the plaintiffs decided to assert these claims in the first place."

Ken Farfsing, city manager of Signal Hill, said neither he nor other city leaders fighting the newly imposed clean-water regulations were shaken by the ruling or its tone from a judge who, in an earlier case, set in motion all of the new cleanup rules.

"We have not had a lot of success in court," he said. "Obviously, she is going to be concerned about her prior ruling."

Four years ago, Armstrong signed a settlement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Baykeeper in an earlier federal case. All parties agreed to set limits on pollution that fouled waters and beaches in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The case was brought because the region had failed to meet requirements of the federal Clean Water Act to have beaches and waters that are clean enough for fishing and swimming.

State and federal officials, since that agreement, have slowly rolled out new limits, each designed to control one type of the myriad pollutants that get swept by rainwater into storm drains and then into creeks, rivers and the ocean.

The first of these limits focused on controlling plastic bags, bottles and other trash that clog storm drains, pollute coastal waters and pile up on beaches. Cities are now under state and federal orders to assess how many tons of trash their streets produce over the next couple of years and to reduce that amount by 10% a year from 2005 through 2015.

The group of cities, which includes Arcadia, South Pasadena, Rosemead, Bellflower and West Covina, has balked at the unforeseen cost of complying with these new rules. They sued the EPA over its approval of the rules that set out a schedule for reducing trash to zero by 2015 but do not explain how to accomplish that.

Catherine Kuhlman, acting director of the EPA's regional water division, said that she is glad the legal challenge is over and that she hopes the cities will refocus their efforts on enforcing antilitter laws, increasing street sweeping and other practical ways to reduce trash.

"We felt that the claims the cities were making were very odd," Kuhlman said. She said some cities have received money from Congress to install catch-basins and grates that prevent trash from entering storm drains; others have long engaged in techniques such as street sweeping. Still others are getting state money to help with various trash cleanup projects.

Kuhlman said cities are irrational in their fears that they will be held accountable for eliminating all trash from the Los Angeles River, Ballona Creek and the beaches. "Enforcement is going to be very practical. We need to improve our situation and reduce the tons and tons of litter going into the water."

David Beckman, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the ruling shows that the cities fighting clean-water rules have been wasting taxpayer dollars.

But city leaders say their legal fees are far less than the potential costs of meeting all of the new rules.

A growing roster of cities is supporting a bill introduced by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) that would impose litter reduction and recycling fees on the most common components of urban trash. Koretz is proposing a 2-cent tax on each plastic bag and cup -- an assessment that could raise as much as $400 million a year to help cities pay for street and beach cleanup.

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