Defending California’s Waterways Through Legal Channels

As the threat of climate change continues to grow, it is no secret that rampant industrial pollution is further harming our already fragile ecosystems.

We know that these violations are occurring, but what can we, as citizens, do about it? CrowdDefend sat down with Caroline Koch of Lawyers for Clean Water to learn more about violations of the Clean Water Act that are taking place at an industrial facility in Northern California. Caroline and her colleagues are working with the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) to take legal action against the violator.

You can help Lawyers for Clean Water and CSPA fight this injustice by donating to their legal fund on CrowdDefend.

Tell us a little bit about the violation that is taking place. How long has it been occurring?

For at least the past 5 years, the A.L. Gilbert Company, the owner and/or operator of an industrial dairy feed manufacturing facility in Oakdale, California, has been violating the Clean Water Act. Despite repeated notifications from citizen groups, the facility has not implemented the required measures that are needed to prevent and reduce the concentrations of toxic pollutants discharging from its facility. As a result, each time storm water runs off the industrial facility, high concentrations of pollutants are discharged into the nearby Stanislaus River. By our estimates the facility has discharged pollutants into the River on nearly 150 occasions since 2010.

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What is the Clean Water Act? 

The Clean Water Act is the federal law enacted to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” that mandates “that discharges of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated…”

The Clean Water Act categorically prohibits any discharge of a pollutant from a source without permit, and all permitted discharges must comply with applicable permit requirements.

Why isn’t the government doing anything about this violation? 

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, a subdivision of the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is charged with regulating industrial facilities in its jurisdiction, which includes the A.L. Gilbert Company. Unfortunately, California’s environmental regulatory agencies are often understaffed and/or unwilling to enforce the laws to prevent pollution and preserve our waterways for generations to come.

Fortunately, however, Congress specifically provided a provision for citizen enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Under this mandate, citizens and citizen groups, like California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), have the power to enforce the Clean Water Act against anyone in violation of the Act.

What are the potential consequences if this violation does not stop? 

Polluted storm water discharging from A.L. Gilbert Company’s industrial facility contains heavy metals such as copper and zinc, among other pollutants. Such contaminants can be acutely toxic and/or have sub-lethal impacts on the avian and aquatic wildlife in the Stanislaus River. Additionally, the State of California has identified the water quality in the Stanislaus River as so degraded that the River cannot support its intended uses, such as wildlife habitat and recreation.

If A.L. Gilbert Company’s Clean Water Act violations persist, polluted storm water discharges from the facility will continue to contribute to the River’s further degradation. A.L. Gilbert Company’s ongoing violations will also continue to impair the public’s use and enjoyment of the Stanislaus River for fishing, boating, swimming, bird watching, picnicking, viewing wildlife, or scientific study—the very uses the Clean Water Act is meant to protect.

What, specifically, is your organization doing to help? 

CSPA sent the owners and/or operators of the A.L. Gilbert Company facility, and the relevant state and federal regulatory agencies, a 60-day notice of intent to file suit in Federal court based on these Clean Water Act violations. This notice provided the owners and/or operators notice of their Clean Water Act violations and an opportunity to come into compliance.

As the 60-day notice period has now ended and the A.L. Gilbert Company’s violations are ongoing, CSPA has filed a citizen-complaint in Federal court.

As a result of its lawsuit, CSPA expects that the A.L. Gilbert Company will come into compliance with the Clean Water Act requirements by significantly improving its storm water management and pollution prevention measures at the facility. These improvements will either be in response to an order by the court or via a settlement reached between the parties.

Legally speaking, what are next steps? 

Currently, the parties’ technical consultants are engaged in ongoing discussions about needed improvements at the facility.

At the end of July 2015, the parties will appear before the federal magistrate judge to set the litigation schedule for this case. Once a schedule is set, CSPA will continue its investigation into A.L. Gilbert Company’s Clean Water violations by propounding discovery requests allowed by the federal rules of civil procedure.

How can concerned citizens help? 

Concerned citizens can help by contributing to CSPA’s CrowdDefend campaign. As a non-profit organization, CSPA’s Clean Water Act citizen-enforcement depends entirely on grants and donations.

CSPA will use any contributions to its current campaign to hire technical consultants and experts to advise CSPA on the most effective remedies to prevent storm water pollution from being discharged to the Stanislaus River and the Delta from the A.L. Gilbert Company facility. Contributions will also help CSPA pay for its legal filing fees and the costs of investigation, including collecting and analyzing storm water samples.

CSPA’s attorneys work on a contingency basis, and contributions will not be used to pay attorneys’ fees.

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