The Los Angeles River cascades under the Anaheim Street bridge on its way… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
A long-running dispute over whether Los Angeles County should be forced to clean up the polluted runoff that is swept into the ocean by two urban rivers will be heard by theU.S. Supreme Court.
The high court justices agreed Monday to hear the county's appeal of a lower court decision that sided with environmental groups. A federal appeals court panel ruled last year that the county and its flood control district are responsible for tainted runoff released into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, in violation of the Clean Water Act.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper sued the county in 2008 in an effort to get the agency to treat or divert tainted water before it reaches the beach.
Water quality experts have long identified storm runoff — the toxic soup of bacteria, pesticides, fertilizer and trash that is swept to the sea when it rains — as the leading source of water pollution at Southern California beaches and a cause of swimmer illness.
The Los Angeles County Flood Control District has argued it is not to blame for the dirty runoff — even if it became so polluted with oil and grease that it caught fire — because it does not generate the pollutants. The agency has said the thousands of miles of storm drains and flood channels it oversees are mere conduits for upstream polluters, including dozens of cities and industrial sites.
The county petitioned a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that concluded it did not matter if the flood control district was the source of the pollution because it still controlled its flow toward the ocean.
In agreeing to hear the case, the high court limited its review to a narrow question: Whether water flowing through concrete flood control channels built in a river can be considered a "discharge" under the Clean Water Act.
"We're very pleased that the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of our case and agreed to hear it," L.A. County Public Works Director Gail Farber said in a statement.
Though the appeals court viewed the waterways as storm sewers, Farber added, "these rivers should be designated as water bodies deserving of Clean Water Act protection."
Environmental groups said they were confident the lower court's decision would be upheld.
"This presents another opportunity to demonstrate the county's ongoing attempts to avoid responsibility for pollution in Los Angeles," Santa Monica Baykeeper Executive Director Liz Crosson said in a statement. "It is time that L.A. County is held accountable for the public health impacts and ecological damage its storm-water pollution creates."
Environmental groups also had sought to hold the county responsible for pollutants swept into the Santa Clara River and Malibu Creek but failed to convince the federal appeals court.