For the second time on the same issue, Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center (EDC) teamed up last week with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over what both organizations — and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — claim are lax standards for storm-water runoff. In 2003, the EDC and NRDC joined forces and successfully challenged EPA regulations, enacted in 1999, that allowed cities with fewer than 100,000 residents to monitor their own discharge practices without extensive public participation in the permitting process for those practices; a judge in San Francisco ordered the federal agency to beef up its rules and to examine runoff from forest roads.
But the 11 years of “EPA foot-dragging” since, said NRDC attorney Larry Levine, prompted the environmental groups to sue. If they prevail, strict deadlines would be imposed on the agency, requiring updated regulations for the small cities within a year and analysis on the need for forest runoff standards within six months. “If the EPA is forced to go back to the drawing board on this storm-water rule, it could result in stronger water-quality protection even beyond the specific sources at issue in this case,” said EDC lawyer Maggie Hall.
Both the EDC and the NRDC allege that the storm water — which accumulates toxins like used motor oil and pesticides — poisons the waterways it flows into, closing beaches and sickening swimmers. The runoff from gravelly forest roads often used for oil and gas drilling — Hall pointed to Sespe Creek in Los Padres National Forest as an example — can harm aquatic life and ruin drinking water.
In a statement, the EPA acknowledged the “serious threat” that the runoff presents but that its “goal is to build a broad nationwide constituency for better storm-water pollution control by educating communities and giving them an opportunity to develop strong programs before creating additional federal regulatory requirements.” Support for “green infrastructure” — think rain gardens and permeable pavements — and greater incentives for small cities to tighten their oversight are among the ideas on the EPA’s table, a spokesperson said.