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Suing over the chloride problem in Santa Clarita?

Some believe best option is filing lawsuit against agency that could impose fines over salt content

Posted: July 8, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 8, 2013 2:00 a.m.

By Jim Holt
Signal Senior Staff Writer

While Santa Clarita Valley residents have been invited to comment on four chloride-reduction plans during the past few months, and some have come up with their own versions of a plan, another option has been discussed though not officially sanctioned: Why don’t we just sue?
Anyone with a business or home connected to the Santa Clarita Valley sewer system would have to pay the price to reduce chloride in waste water, but many question the need for chloride reduction, the science that supports it or the government agency that demands it. Some think a lawsuit is the best option.
Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District officials stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their answer: suing over the issue would just add legal fees on top of the fines already imposed and costs of building the infrastructure to reduce the output of chloride.
“You don’t win because these regulatory agencies — it’s their job to set these water quality standards,” said Phil Friess, engineer with the sanitation district. “And so the courts defer to these regulatory agencies’ expertise in setting regulatory standards, water quality standards,” he said.
“The courts are going to side with state water boards and give them deference that they properly set water quality standards,” Friess said.
The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of nine such California boards whose job it is to ensure water quality in the state, has set the acceptable chloride level in the Santa Clara River at 100 milligrams per liter of water.

The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District operates its water treatment plants under a permit to hold chloride to that level in water dumped into the river, which flows downstream to Santa Clara River Valley farmers.

In November, the water quality district fined the sanitation district $225,000 for failing to meet the conditions of the permit. More fines could be issued if the water board’s demands aren’t met.

The cost of the four chloride-reduction plans released in April by the sanitation district for public consideration ranges from $125 to $265 for a single-family homeowner, depending on which plan is adopted. Business rates could as much as double.

Kathie Smith, spokeswoman for the California Water Resources Control Board, told The Signal that suing over fines is a losing proposition, but suing over standards set by the regional water quality control boards has succeeded in the past — rarely.

“Any challenge or lawsuit faces very steep hurdles,” Smith said in a phone interview.

“The Legislature has compelled the assessment of mandatory minimum penalties for certain violations,” she said. “The water boards don’t have discretion to not impose the penalty.

“Courts have recognized this, and I’m not aware of any court decision setting aside a mandatory minimum penalty.”

In 2004, the city of Brentwood in Contra Costa County sued the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board over fines and lost. Brentwood ratepayers paid for the legal costs of their suit on top of compliance costs to meet the water quality board’s demands.

On the other hand, Smith said, “If the question is about challenging the water boards’ planning and permitting actions, the history of successful lawsuits is a bit more complex.”

Still, “The water boards prevail in the vast majority of the lawsuits challenging their water quality actions,” she said.

Suing over the chloride limit set by the water board has a little more promise for the ratepayers of the Santa Clarita Valley than fighting the fines.

“Of the thousands of water quality regulatory actions the water boards take each year, I would estimate that only 20-30 water quality actions are challenged in any calendar year,” Smith said.

“In some years, the water boards may lose none of those cases,” she said. “In other years, they may lose three to five of those cases.”

In the last year, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board lost a challenge made by environmental groups to a permit for existing dairies.

The environmental group, Asociacion de Gente Unida por el Agua, challenged a state water board order prohibiting existing ponds on farms and other dairy discharges from degrading groundwater.

At issue for state water regulators was the maximum contaminant level of nitrate runoff from farms. The group challenged the veracity of documents filed in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act that were used to set acceptable levels of nitrate in runoff water.
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