Environmental lawsuit filed against Malibu, L.A. County

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The suit claims the local governments are responsible for polluting the watershed. The environmental organizations filing the suit say there is still the possibility litigation could be avoided.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

Nearly nine months after they announced their intention to sue Los Angeles county and the city of Malibu over water pollution, two environmental organizations on Monday made good on their word. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Santa Monica Baykeeper filed suits against the local governments in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The organizations allege, through using the county’s own data, that the county and city have continuously violated rules added to the federal Clean Water Act in 1991 setting limits on the amount of pollutants that can enter the watershed through storm water and other runoff. The pollutants include fecal bacteria, cyanide, sulfate and several others.

“What we’re seeking after nearly 20 years of restrictions is results measured as clean water, plain and simple,” said NRDC senior attorney David Beckman.

The NRDC and Santa Monica Baykeeper had filed a notice to the city and county in June that they intended to sue. This began a 60-day process toward the filing of a federal suit. During that period, the governments had the opportunity to meet with the environmental groups to come up with a solution and avoid going to court.

“We have bent over backwards to delay the initiation of litigation,” Beckman said. “We only had to wait 60 days, but we waited four and a half times longer than that, considerably longer than anybody else would wait.”

City Attorney Christi Hogin, who has headed the negotiations for the city, said she was surprised about the filing of the suit because there have been what she considered to be productive meetings. She said she believes those meetings would continue, and that litigation could still be avoided.

“The City Council isn’t interested in litigating to prove its goodness because everybody knows you don’t get clean water out of a courtroom, you get it out of programs and good projects,” Hogin said.

Hogin looked to the city’s 2005 construction of the Civic Center area storm water treatment plant and its plan to build Legacy Park to further the storm water treatment goals as a sign Malibu is working on the pollution issue. She said another pollution problem concerning the environmental groups, at Latigo Point, could be solved through the filtration of storm drains. She said Malibu will have to work with other cities and agencies to find additional solutions for the local watershed.

But the view that the city is on the right track is not necessarily shared by Santa Monica Baykeeper. Tom Ford, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the Legacy Park project would only “solve a fraction” of the problem.

“They’ve known that these violations have been happening, and they’ve done nothing to address it,” Ford said. “When we look year after year, we see the same thing happening. There’s been no action that’s been taken that’s made a difference.”

When asked about Ford’s comment, Hogin said, “Sometimes people use a bullhorn to get attention.”

She added, “They [NRDC and Baykeeper] are drawing attention to a problem they feel passionate about and they are concerned it’s going to fall to a lower priority for us. I understand the worry, but I don’t think there’s any evidence for it. You can see the city has a consistent priority for clean water.”

Meanwhile, both Ford and Beckm an said continuing talks with the city was possible. Neither would specify why they thought the situation had reached a point that the filing of the suit was necessary, citing negotiation confidentiality.

Hogin said she believed it was a good sign that although the suit had been filed in federal court, it had not been formally served to the city in person.

“I know it might sound like lawyer technical talk, but it’s a significant thing not to be served,” Hogin said.

Beckman said he would not comment on Hogin’s “view on technical details,” but he added, “I am not disagreeing with Christi’s sense there may be some momentum [toward an agreement]. However, I can’t really comment on settlement discussions.”