Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic Files Amicus Brief in Supreme Court Stormwater Contamination Case

Students and faculty in the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic (IEC) have filed an amicus brief in an environmental case before the Supreme Court of the United States involving liability for stormwater run-off in Los Angeles County, California. (Click here to view the brief.)

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case, L.A. County Flood Control District vs. NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), on Tuesday, Dec. 4.

“The case is important because the Supreme Court will be deciding for the first time who is responsible for stormwater contamination, which is regulated under the Clean Water Act,” says IEC attorney Liz Hubertz who filed the brief. Third-year law student Caitlin Hartsell and fellow IEC clinic student Jillian Roffer, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, also worked on the brief under the supervision of Hubertz and IEC Engineering and Science Director Beth Martin.

The brief articulates arguments of Derek B. Booth, an internationally recognized geologist in the field of urban watersheds and stormwater management. The clinic’s brief and Booth’s expertise support the position of the NRDC.

The original case, filed in 2008 by the NRDC and another environmental group, argued that Los Angeles County Metropolitan Sewer District is responsible for contamination caused by stormwater runoff to local rivers and bays.

In 2010, a federal judge rejected the environmentalists’ claims, ruling that they could not prove from where the runoff was coming. The NRDC appealed, and last year the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with the NRDC, saying that county was responsible. The Supreme Court will be considering the county’s appeal of the 9th Circuit’s ruling.

The IEC, which has worked with local organizations on stormwater issues, is following the case for potential national implications, including any that could affect St. Louis. In writing the brief, the IEC drew on its interdisciplinary strengths to explain from an engineering perspective how, as a “stormwater superhighway,” the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) operates.

To illustrate, the brief uses the example of a tiny piece of copper that drops from a motorist’s braking system onto the highway and then enters the storm sewer system. The brief follows that piece of copper through the storm sewer system. At several points, it may enter into settling areas where material like the piece of copper can settle out of the water, but it will inevitably find its way to the “outfall” where it enters a river, bay, or other body of water.

Amicus wishes to supply the Court with an accurate understanding of the stormwater collection process and the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System,” the brief states. It then explains that “in most U.S. cities west of the Mississippi, including Los Angeles and its surrounding municipalities, stormwater runs through an entirely separate set of pipes and outfalls from those that are used to convey sewage”—the MS4.

Because the water passes through “mass emission stations where exceedances of water quality standards have been repeatedly detected” as well as the county’s MS4 and settling areas, the amicus brief concludes that the county should be responsible for the release of polluted water to the environment.

  • Click here for more on the case
  • Click here for a related article in the Los Angeles Times 

By Timothy J. Fox