Environmental group takes regional water agency to task

Environmental group Heal the Bay says Los Angeles' regional water quality agency is allowing sewage plants and other polluters to send toxic substances into local waters without penalty. KPCC's Molly Peterson has the story.

Molly Peterson: If an industrial plant holds a permit to release wastewater into L.A. rivers and the ocean, it must keep the pollutants in that water – like copper, or chemicals – below certain levels. On top of that, what the plant releases has to meet standards for toxicity.

Charlotte Stevenson: What toxicity testing is, is testing for everything that's in the water altogether.

Peterson: Heal the Bay's Charlotte Stevenson says the water quality board's test acts as a safety net.

Stevenson: They actually take a sample of the water that's going to be discharged and put live organisms in it and actually see what happens.

Peterson: She says checking to see whether wastewater harms marine life like minnows can protect people and the environment against combined pollutants. It can also shield against unknown dangers from newer chemicals.

But the regional water quality board doesn't maintain one clear standard – one number – for toxicity tests. Stevenson says that's confusing.

Stevenson: Some permits have limits. Some just have narrative limits. Some have triggers, which means when they hit a certain threshold it triggers further monitoring.

Peterson: Stevenson adds that regional regulators rarely penalize polluters for testing toxic. L.A. regional water quality control board chair Fran Diamond admits that her agency's policy can be vague.

Fran Diamond: It's like having no speed limit and getting a ticket for speeding. It's very difficult to enforce.

Peterson: But Diamond says the state's responsible. Almost six years ago the state water agency said it would place a number limit on toxicity. State regulators still haven't done that. Diamond says that's complicated the regional board's job.

Diamond: We really have been constrained from doing the job that we want to do, that we know we need to do, and that we will do once we get the numeric limits we've been waiting for.

Peterson: Diamond may not have to wait much longer. The State Water Resources Control Board has promised to set standards for toxicity this spring. In the meantime, Heal the Bay's Stevenson says her group will keep pushing the regional board to enforce the rules that are on the books now.