U.S. Supreme Court Lets L.A. County off the Hook for L.A. River Pollution

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court waded into admittedly polluted waters on Monday when it unanimously ruled that Los Angeles County cannot be held responsible for the effluence that runs through the L.A. River on its way to being dumped in the Santa Monica Bay.

Local governments essentially argued that so many communities along the Los Angeles, Santa Clara and San Gabriel rivers were dumping so much crap in them that it was virtually impossible at this point to assign blame to anyone for the pollution. The court did not absolve the county of ultimate responsibility and urged that more monitoring be done of the toxic metals, pesticides, trash, bacteria and animal feces that regularly flow to the sea and are especially virulent when storm waters are high.

The case originated in a lawsuit filed in 2008 by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Santa Monica Baykeeper (since renamed Los Angeles Waterkeeper) over excessive pollution levels in the three rivers and Malibu Creek. The Los Angeles Flood Control District maintains it is not the responsible party because it doesn’t generate the pollution.

The U.S. District Court found in favor of the county, but was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2011. The Supreme Court took the case but announced it would only address the narrow issue of whether the polluted water running through a concrete flood control channel, which much of the L.A. River is, should be considered a toxic discharge under the Clean Water Act.

The answer was an emphatic “No.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed a bit incredulous of claims otherwise when she wrote in her majority opinion that well-know court precedent established that moving polluted waters from one portion of a river through a concrete channel to another portion of the same river is a “transfer,” not a “discharge.”

Santa Monica Baykeeper and the NRDC argued that the Ninth Circuit court reached the right decision for the wrong reason, and what really counted was that water known to exceed standards in the county district’s permit was detected at the county’s monitoring stations.

Ginsburg said their point may be well taken but the justices don’t care.

“It is not embraced within, or even touched by, the narrow question on which we granted certiorari. We therefore do not address, and indicate no opinion on, the issue the NRDC and Baykeeper seek to substitute for the question we took up for review,” she wrote.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Justices Let LA Skate in Polluted Water Dispute (by Barbara Leonard, Courthouse News Service)

U.S. Supreme Court Hands L.A. County a Victory in Water Lawsuit (by Abby Sewell and David Savage, Los Angeles Times)

Supreme Court to Wade Into Dirty L.A. Waters (by Dan McCue, Courthouse News Service)

L.A. County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council et al. (U.S. Supreme Court) (pdf)

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