A coalition of six clean water groups filed suit in California Superior Court late Tuesday alleging that lakes, rivers and other fresh water resources throughout the state face continued toxic pollution threats despite new federal rules designed to limit those threats.
For the last six years, California has failed to establish standards for toxic pollutants in California's inland waters. On May 18, 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to establish numerical limits on 126 "priority" toxic pollutants for the state (known as the California Toxics Rule). The State Water Resources Control Board simultaneously issued the Inland Surface Waters Toxics Plan to direct the regional regulators on how to use the new limits in industrial and municipal waste discharge permits.
Many of California's inland surface waters–lakes, rivers, bays and estuaries–have elevated levels of toxic pollutants from municipal and industrial discharges. Pollutants such as dioxin, mercury, selenium, dieldrin, endrin, and heptachlor pose serious threats to fish and other water-dependent wildlife and to human health.
"With this plan, the state has tried to provide regional permit writers with operating instructions for the Clean Water Act," said Jonathan Kaplan, Executive Director of WaterKeepers Northern California. "But these operating instructions tell regulators to allow more discharges of toxic chemicals in the San Francisco Bay and around the state. On the water quality side, the state has been coming up short," said Kaplan. "These regulations haven't even provided the minimum water quality protections required by law."
"Rather than ensure Californians have water safe enough for swimming and fishing as directed by state and federal law, the state's plan undermines toxics standards finally established by the federal government," said Rebecca Bernard, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund representing the clean water groups. "California's inland waters are under continual assault by toxins like dioxin, mercury, and selenium that harm human health and wildlife. This plan won't solve the problem."
The suit was filed by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of WaterKeepers Northern California, Santa Monica BayKeeper, Heal the Bay, Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper (a project of the Environmental Defense Center), Orange County CoastKeeper, and San Diego BayKeeper.
The federal Clean Water Act and the California Porter-Cologne Act require that toxic discharges into waterways be limited to the extent necessary to protect "beneficial use" of that water. Environmental groups believe that the state's plan will eviscerate the federal Toxics Rule by creating loopholes, passing off responsibility to Regional Water Quality Control Boards, and allowing dangerously long compliance deadlines.
"In Southern California, urban discharges of toxics have made many our waterways unsafe for aquatic life. The new federal rule is a step in the right direction, but the state toxics plan guts the protection the EPA determined would be needed to protect the state's inland waters. We need strong standards enforced now, for the health of both wildlife and people," said Mark Gold of Heal the Bay.