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State to curb toxic runoff

Caltrans agrees to drastically reduce the poisonous stew that drains from Southland roads into waterways.

January 19, 2008|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Millions of gallons of polluted runoff from state highways in Los Angeles and Ventura counties will be prevented from contaminating local waters and beaches every year under a court agreement reached Friday between Caltrans and environmentalists.

Caltrans vowed to reduce storm water pollution by 20% below 1994 levels along more than 1,000 miles of state highway in the region, according to the agreement in federal court with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica BayKeeper.

Storm water that drains off highways can be a toxic brew of trash, oil, rubber, brake dust and microscopic bits of metal. Solvents, fertilizers and pesticides, along with human and animal waste, are often swept into the mix.

Most of the plans to install pollution controls must be completed by 2011, and environmental groups expect the reductions to be achieved by 2015.

The two sides have battled in court since 1993.

"This represents a major step forward in the control of storm water runoff -- the largest source of water pollution in the state," said David S. Beckman, a defense council attorney.

In an average year, more than 6 million gallons of oil run into California's waters from roads and sidewalks, the state Environmental Protection Agency reports.

Tests of some Caltrans drains in the Los Angeles area have revealed contamination so foul it qualifies as hazardous waste.

Toxic storm water runoff from roads and highways can harm fish, sea urchins, shrimp, birds and microorganisms, research shows.

Approved by U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie, the storm water agreement replaces an April 2004 court settlement in which Caltrans promised to install filtering systems where appropriate when repairing, improving and building highways.

For existing freeways, Caltrans had agreed in 2004 to treat runoff wherever feasible for improvement projects involving more than three acres, such as widenings and interchanges.

Storm water controls vary from simple devices, such as drain filters and screens, to complex equipment that removes sediment and debris. Detention basins, sand traps, and strips of vegetation are often used to filter storm water before it reaches a storm drain or waterway.

Beckman said it appeared to NRDC and BayKeeper about a year ago that Caltrans was having problems complying with the 2004 court settlement, which was reached after more than a decade in court. Negotiations began, Beckman said, to avoid pursuing a contempt citation against Caltrans.

Unlike the earlier settlement, the new agreement requires a set reduction in runoff and avoids the previous piecemeal approach by allowing Caltrans to consider entire highway corridors when formulating a storm water strategy.

"Not setting goals has been standard operating procedure when regulating storm water discharges in the state. Now we are setting an end goal," Beckman said. "Hopefully, this new approach will provide a model for local governments, transportation agencies and industries."

Caltrans attorneys were either unavailable Friday or declined comment. But in a statement, Douglas R. Failing, Caltrans district director for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, said the settlement meshes with the agency's goals.

"It is something we have been trying to achieve all along," Failing said. "What is important is that a methodology has been identified that we feel will work in this urban area of Los Angeles."

Under the agreement, Caltrans will examine 1,000 miles of freeway in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and develop plans by 2011 for reducing storm water pollution.

Caltrans also will supplement its existing efforts to reduce contaminated runoff with innovative practices that have performed well in recent studies. The new methods include porous pavement that can absorb pollutants before storm water enters watersheds.

In the past, Caltrans has been concerned about the cost of storm water controls, both locally and statewide. The agency estimated a few years ago that equipping highways in Los Angeles County with filtering devices could approach $5 billion -- a figure that environmentalists have disputed.

Beckman said the approach outlined in the new agreement should hold down costs. Caltrans, he added, has realized that their original cost estimates were too high and that the agency can treat runoff for a fraction of the total cost of a highway project.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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