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Beaching the Cleanup Plan 

How a one-man crusade to overturn pollution controls became a $1 million legal fight

Thursday, Jun 19 2003
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Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

An oil pump rocks under a gray sky in front of Curley’s Café in Signal Hill. Inside, City Councilman Larry Forester, a talkative 56-year-old, discusses real estate and greets constituents.

Forester says he is proud to have earned the respect of the crowd at Curley’s by promoting economic development in this city founded by oil men in 1924. “I’m in the most redneck place in town and I’m openly gay,” he brags.

Over lunch, Forester explains how he started a pro-development coalition called Concerned Citizens of Signal Hill after slow-growth forces took over the city in 1990. “Today, four out of five of us are founding members of Concerned Citizens and have turned an anti-development town into a pro-development city,” he says.

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Lately, Forester, a council member since 1998, has a new crusade. The former marine engineer, who once worked for Exxon, is challenging rules aimed at cleaning up storm water and other runoff before it reaches the ocean. He claims the rules are too expensive, unlikely to work and could expose cities to potentially unlimited liabilities. Forester has helped bring together some 46 cities under the banner of the Coalition for Practical Regulation to fight the rules in court. Through mid-2002, the group had spent more than $538,000, almost all collected from small cities, to pay for its legal campaign, with most of the money, some $380,000, going to the Orange County law firm of Rutan & Tucker. The group, which charges cities $10,000 a year for basic membership, billed in two $5,000 installments, is expected to take in at least another $400,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30.

From Sierra Madre to Lawndale, city officials appear to be acting out of fear and responding to a misleading campaign contending that the cost of meeting the new requirements would be astronomical, a claim that so far has proved unfounded. In a series of press releases, communications to cities, and on its Web site, the coalition has said that to pay for the cleanup, cities will have to drastically cut police and fire protection or institute massive hikes in fees and taxes.

In an ironic twist, however, if the group succeeds in overturning water-pollution-control requirements for developers, the public most likely will end up paying the bills.

The coalition and law firm have rushed cities to join legal challenges, often obtaining authorizations from city managers ahead of consideration by city councils. Moreover, council members have approved support for the coalition’s activities on the basis of memos filtered through city staff and were not fully briefed by the law firm on the details of the various legal challenges they are financing with public money.

At issue are rules the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted over the past four years that call on cities and businesses to prevent contamination in runoff from rainstorms, sprinklers and wash-off. Pollutants carried by runoff to the ocean cause illness among swimmers and threaten marine life. In 2001, Los Angeles County experienced 1,046 beach closures and advisories against swimming due to bacterial contamination.

Forester calls rolling back the rules his number-two priority. “I’ve never been against clean water,” he explains. “The question is to what extent and at what cost.” His number-one goal is raising money for AIDS organizations. “I’m living with full-blown AIDS,” says the Signal Hill politician, who orders a second iced tea and takes several capsules he drops from a pouch onto the table.

 

Water-board officials and clean-water advocates point out that pollution of Southern California’s shores now stems primarily from storm drains, creeks and rivers that carry urban runoff and storm water full of trash and pollutants from the sprawling Los Angeles area. “If you look at sewage-treatment plants,” according to Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, “the improvement has been dramatic.” However, added Gold, who has worked as a scientist and clean-water advocate for 15 years, “When it comes to storm water, we haven’t done a damn thing.”

Congress identified storm water as a major source of water pollution when it re-authorized the federal Clean Water Act in 1987. In Los Angeles County, the water board issued its first storm-water-pollution control permit in 1990. “It was really let’s join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” said Gold.

Since then the board has tightened requirements for new development projects in 2000 and for Los Angeles County and its cities in 2001. New development projects must include filters and areas that retain rainwater so it soaks into the ground rather than running off. Municipalities for the first time face lawsuits and legal penalties if water-quality standards are not met, a provision Forester says opens them to unlimited liability. Among other measures, cities must inspect local businesses for good housekeeping practices and clean their streets and storm-sewer catch basins regularly, according to Xavier Swamikannu, a regional-board engineer.

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