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Water Pollution Crackdown Pays Off

A study finds a drop in violations and an increase in amount of fines. But the authors also point to what they say is a major loophole.

September 24, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

A new law imposing tougher penalties for water pollution has led to greater compliance with state water quality standards, according to a report released Tuesday.

The study, issued by an environmental group, found the number of Clean Water Act permit violations statewide and in the San Francisco Bay region had dropped significantly since the 2000 law took effect. Conversely, the number of enforcement actions and the amount of money collected in fines rose.

But the authors also pointed to what they termed a major loophole in the law. Thousands of polluters were never penalized for failure to file monitoring reports detailing what they were discharging into the state's waterways.

"It's a whole easy way to get out of paying the piper for your violation," said coauthor Sujatha Jahagirdar of the Environment California Research and Policy Center.

Mark Bradley, chief of the Compliance Assurance and Enforcement Unit of the State Water Resources Control Board, agreed that the law had reduced the number of violations. But he said it was difficult to gauge if the amount of pollution in lakes and streams had decreased commensurately.

"We don't know," Bradley said. "It's one thing to have permits with limits and know when it's complied with or violated -- and another thing entirely to assess the health of a particular water body."

The law, which sets a mandatory minimum fine of $3,000 for serious violations of water quality rules, followed various studies showing that fines were rarely imposed on polluters.

"There's certainly a link between mandatory minimum penalties and a decrease in violations," Bradley said.

Some polluters cleaned up their discharges to bring them in line with their permits. Some stopped discharging into waterways, and some contested the frequency with which they had to file discharge reports. All of those factors contributed to the drop in violations, Bradley said.

According to the study, the number of Clean Water Act permit violations in California fell from a monthly average of 1,800 in 1999 to 874 last year. Total fines levied rose from $5.4 million in 1999 to nearly $12 million in 2001.

"I think there have been some major pluses related to that legislation," said Greg Walker, a senior engineer with the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Region. But he added that it has also strained the staff. "It has required a great deal more resources directed to enforcement than in the past."

The analysis of permit data found that dischargers who simply did not file required monitoring reports largely escaped penalty. Of more than 4,000 reporting violations between 1999 and 2002, only about 1% resulted in fines.

Legislation written by Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) and now on Gov. Gray Davis' desk would establish a mandatory minimum penalty of $3,000 a month for failure to submit discharge reports.

Bradley said his office is seeking funding for an electronic filing system that tracks when and if required reports are submitted.

"What's really needed is some kind of electronic receiving and monitoring system," he said.

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