By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Allan Zolnekoff is no environmental pariah. To the contrary, on and off the Whittier City Council, he fought to preserve historic neighborhoods, to acquire 4,000 acres in the Puente Hills for a wildlife corridor and to create a 5-mile-long cycling and pedestrian path.
But on one issue, he‘s going against both his own grain and leading environmentalists. Zolnekoff has joined with dozens of local elected officials to fight the state’s latest storm-water permit for the L.A. basin. The goal of the permit is to keep trash and other pollution out of the regional watershed. Over time, the cleanliness standards get progressively more strict. The result, in about 10 to 18 years, would be city rivers and streams clean enough to swim in and support healthy native plant and animal life. But perhaps the driving motivation is to protect the region‘s shores from their number-one source of pollution, urban runoff that periodically makes beaches unsafe to use, especially after rainstorms.
“I believe the effort to clean the water is well-meaning,” said Zolnekoff, “because nobody wants to pollute the ocean. When I found out that Whittier’s public-works folks were against the rules, I took them to task at first and said, ‘Why are you doing something that’s so environmentally hostile?‘ Then they showed me the problems.”
The first and foremost problem is cost, which is impossible to nail down, but will be substantial. A coalition of small cities released a gloom-and-doom study this week claiming likely expenses of well over $100 billion, though others scoffed at this figure. Regardless, state water officials have no money to help out, and cities faced a January 17 deadline for filing suit against the new rules. So the Whittier City Council voted this week to join numerous other smaller county cities in going to court. L.A. County a and the city of Los Angeles voted last week to pursue legal redress.
Regional water officials insist that the county and cities are overreacting. And the moves have dismayed environmentalists, whose own past litigation pressured oversight agencies to enforce federal clean-water standards.
Even before the current statewide budget crisis, local elected officials had concluded that the cost of cleansing rivers and streams -- which have evolved into concrete flood-control ditches throughout most of Southern California -- could decimate city services. And they contend that regional water officials are virtually mandating high-tech and high-cost cleaning equipment that is so new and unproven that it might not do the job anyway. If these measures should fail, they add, then cities are subject to fines of as much as a million dollars a month. Local governments also could face lawsuits from environmental groups and even private citizens for failing to meet clean-water targets.
This possibility of third-party litigation provoked the L.A. City Council’s vote to challenge the storm-water permit. A dissenting vote, however, was cast by Jack Weiss, whose Westside council district is a hotbed of the environmental movement.
“The city of L.A. and L.A. County had a decision to make,” said Weiss, “whether to partner with the environmental community in making these new regulations work or whether to fight the environmental community. They made the wrong choice.” He added, “There‘s a parade of horribles the opponents always trot out. I don’t think that‘s accurate. The city is now going to be in litigation with the state water board and the environmental community. The city is going to spend perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The state and environmental community will do likewise. That’s the money that should be spent on environment,” especially, said Weiss, given L.A.‘s poor track record litigating against environmental regulation.
Without question, the specified cleanup standard for the L.A. River and its tributaries is exacting. In 10 years, for instance, the requirement is that no trash -- zero -- can enter the watershed. But Weiss expects that no jurisdiction would be unduly penalized for good-faith efforts that happen to fall short.
That’s also the message of Dennis Dickerson, executive officer for the L.A. region of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. Dickerson stressed that the zero trash mandate does not necessarily mean “absolute” zero, but whatever regulators define as the best achievable outcome closest to zero. He also pointed out that water officials have consistently chosen to work with cities rather than prosecute them for infractions. “The regional board could take more aggressive steps if necessary,” said Dickerson, “but we‘re not being draconian.”
Dickerson also denies that his agency is pushing high-cost approaches for such seemingly intractable pollution sources as litter, bacteria from pet poop and human waste, and dust from car-brake linings. Low-tech solutions would include providing pet owners, for example, with plastic-bag dispensers in parks and disposable gloves for picking up you-know-what. “And you can ensure adequate restrooms for the homeless. That is the reasonable and humane thing to do anyway.” As far as littering, handing out a few citations would be a real deterrent: “That could even be revenue-generating.” And street sweeping could take care of the brake dust.
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