Malibu’s in hot water with enviro lawsuit

Malibu Creek and Lagoon in 2007

Council says politics are behind environmental lawsuit.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

City Council members at their meeting on Monday night alleged that politics rather than a concern for the environment were behind a federal lawsuit being threatened against the city and Los Angeles County by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Santa Monica Baykeeper. Officials from the environmental organizations said the accusation was baseless, and said if they end up suing it is because Malibu and the county have failed to stop what they say is a continuing pollution of county waters.

City officials said they found it interesting that the Baykeeper would be part of the intention to file a federal lawsuit because they thought the organization was working with them toward curbing the pollution of the Malibu watershed.

“I’m bewildered by why Baykeeper, who we’ve worked closely with, especially on the Legacy Park Project, to try to clean up [the Malibu watershed], would institute the lawsuit,” Councilmember Sharon Barovsky said. “But when I look at who’s on the board [of directors], it becomes less mysterious to me.”

Barovsky did not specify any particular people, but the Baykeeper board is made up of a who’s who of anti-City Council activists, including Ozzie Silna. He said on Tuesday in an interview that the accusation was false.

“The lawsuit I’m involved in has nothing to do with Malibu politics,” Silna said. “You think the NRDC is doing this for political purposes? Why would they care about Malibu politics?”

The notice issued to the county and city earlier this month begins a 60-day process toward the filing of a federal lawsuit. The city and county have the opportunity to respond to the notice with their defenses. The notice claims the two governments have violated the federal Clean Water Act. Malibu was accused of discharging contaminated water into Malibu Creek and for polluting the watershed around Latigo Point in Malibu, which they say is a stated-designated Area of Special Biological Significance, or ASBS. And they say that is a violation of state law.

“There have been long standing water quality violations in Santa Monica Bay that have not been solved by the county or Malibu,” said NRDC senior attorney David Beckman. “We are not interested in hearing about projects. We are interested in hearing about results.”

The notice states that Malibu is responsible for polluting the Malibu Creek, and the Malibu watershed as a whole in the process, with high levels of cyanide, sulfate and fecal bacteria. Surfrider Beach, where the creek and lagoon empties into the ocean, was named one of the top 10 worst beaches for its poor water quality by Heal the Bay, another environmental watchdog. The beach continually receives a grade of “F” for water quality.

The notice served by the NRDC and Santa Monica Baykeeper provides evidence with studies conducted on Malibu’s watershed last year and in 2005. Since that time, a storm water treatment facility has been constructed in the Civic Center area and the council is planning to develop a sophisticated storm water/wastewater treatment facility with its Legacy Park Project, with a goal to curb pollution of the watershed.

“It’s a troubling and unfortunate turn of events,” City Attorney Christi Hogin said about the environmental groups’ notice at Monday’s meeting. “We’ve [the city] been spending enormous amounts of city resources-staff and financial-toward cleaning up the water and that has been our goal.”

But Baykeeper Executive Director Tracy Egoscue said in an interview on Tuesday that it is her understanding the city’s plans will only solve a portion of its watershed pollution problem. She declined to suggest how the city could further deal with the issue, saying it is Malibu’s responsibility to figure that out.

“The Baykeeper is not in the business of micro-managing so to speak,” Escogue said. “We are in the business of enforcing the law. That’s what our job is.”

With the environmental groups saying the city is not doing enough to clean the watershed and the city officials saying it is, litigation is likely unavoidable. But Beckman said that might not be the case.

“We’re not looking for a confrontation,” he said. “We sent them a letter. There’s two months provided for conversations. I would say if the city or the county, if they’ve got the problem licked, then come talk to us. I’m somewhat skeptical, but I would be happy to be wrong.”