City of  Los Angeles routinely violates Clean Water laws fines may exceed $8 million

December 24, 2002
By BARBARA WHITAKER
 
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 23 - A federal judge found Los Angeles in
violation of the Clean Water Act today, holding it liable
for 297 sewage spills from January 2001 to July 2002.

The ruling by Judge Ronald S. W. Lew of Federal District
Court here could result in fines exceeding $8 million -
$27,500 for each spill - and court-ordered remedies.

"The City of Los Angeles can no longer treat daily sewage
spills as business as usual," said Steve Fleischli,
executive director of the Santa Monica Baykeeper, an
environmental group that sued the city about the spills
four years ago. "This sets the stage for liability on
thousands of spills."

In court documents, Baykeeper, which was joined in the suit
by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Los
Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and several
community groups, contends that the city has a "chronic,
continuing and unacceptable number of spills from its
sewage collection system." From 1993 to January 2002,
according to documents, the city reported 3,000 spills from
its pipes.

"This isn't a third-world city. We should be able to do a
lot better," said Fran B. Diamond, chairman of the regional
water quality board.

Baykeeper said there had been more than 2,000 sewage spills
since its suit was filed in 1998 despite negotiations to
try to resolve the problem. Of the 297 spills cited in
today's hearing, the city conceded to all but 4. In those
cases, the city argued that the sewage did not reach water.
But Judge Lew found that a spill constituted a violation.

A trial is scheduled for early 2004 to address penalties
and remedies. Efforts to resolve the case through a
negotiated settlement will continue, lawyers said.

Adel Hagekhalil, division manager with the city's waste
water engineering division, said the city was working to
eliminate the problem. He noted that the Board of Public
Works, an oversight board appointed by the mayor, had set a
goal of reducing spills by 25 percent by 2005.

"We've been working for four years trying to understand the
issues," Mr. Hagekhalil said, "trying to find remedies and
I think we've been successful in some areas."

Among the initiatives Mr. Hagekhalil cited was a
grease-control program intended for restaurants, which
emphasizes cleaning techniques and has enabled the city to
reduce grease-caused spills by 30 percent in the last year.

He added that the city had spent more than $1 billion in
the last 10 years upgrading sewers and planned to spend
another $2 billion in the next 10 years for more
improvements.

Los Angeles has about 6,500 miles of sewers, more than half
of which are at least 50 years old. The system is plagued
by persistent blockages by grease and roots. The spills
typically end up in waterways like the Los Angeles River
and Ballona Creek, running into the ocean and fouling
beaches.

The E.P.A. is also pursuing cases against other cities,
including Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami and New Orleans. Still,
officials said, Los Angeles has one of the highest sewage
spills in the country, averaging two a day.

According to Baykeeper, a disproportionate number of spills
occur in neighborhoods that have high percentages of
African-American and Latino residents. Several homeowner
groups have banded to protest the spills.