California to Filter Stormwater from 1,000 Miles of Roads

LOS ANGELES, California, January 23, 2008 (ENS) – Millions of gallons of polluted stormwater that runs off state highways each year will be kept out of Southern California waters and off the region’s beaches after two environmental groups and the California Department of Transportation came to an agreement in federal court on Friday.

The state agency, known as Caltrans, will reduce runoff from 1,000 miles of highway across Los Angeles and Ventura counties under the agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, and Santa Monica Baykeeper.

“Highways are the backbone of Southern California’s economy, but they are also a major source of toxic pollution in our waterways,” said David Beckman, director of NRDC’s Coastal Water Quality Project and lead attorney for the plaintiff groups.

“Every rainstorm sends a toxic soup of oil, grease, lead and other dangerous ingredients that accumulate on our roads, rushing into Santa Monica Bay. This agreement means cleaner water and safer beaches for everyone in the region,” Beckman said.

Runoff from highways pollutes
California waters. (Photo
courtesy Caltrans)

Under the agreement Caltrans, which operates the largest freeway system in the country, will reduce runoff pollution from its freeways in Los Angeles and Ventura counties by 20 percent compared to 1994 levels.

Caltrans will examine 1,000 miles of freeway corridors in the region, completing pollution reduction blueprints for each corridor by 2011.

When fully implemented, the new measures are expected to keep more than millions of pounds of pollution out of area waters every year. Toxic metals like lead and zinc will be reduced by almost 24,000 pounds per year, the NRDC says.

When it rains currently, the stormwater drains off quickly, but the runoff is not filtered, so toxic metals, oil, grease and other contaminants on the pavement are carried into the region’s waters and eventually to the ocean.

In an average year, the California Environmental Protection Agency says, more than six million gallons of oil run into California’s waters from roads and sidewalks.

Tests of some Caltrans drains have revealed contamination that qualifies as hazardous waste.

“Contaminated runoff from freeways is the largest and most polluted part of overall stormwater runoff,” says Beckman.

Approved by U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie, the new stormwater agreement replaces an April 2004 settlement with the two environmental groups reached after more than 10 years in court.

That settlement provided for Caltrans to install stormwater filtering systems when building or repairing highways.

NRDC and BayKeeper realized in 2006 that Caltrans was having trouble complying with the 2004 court settlement and began talks to get the stormwater cleaned up without a contempt of court citation against Caltrans.

Under the new settlement, Caltrans will start cleaning up the runoff using a variety of innovative solutions to capture the mess before it reaches the beach.

Cleanup options include sand traps, catch basins and new porous pavement surfaces that catch polluted runoff and absorb the contaminants.

Such methods have been tested in studies jointly administered by Caltrans and NRDC, and have been shown to be effective.

The agreement by the state to embrace these best management practices on new highways as well as existing ones is a first, and has the potential to become a national model.

“Polluted runoff is the number one water pollution problem in America,” said Beckman. “Caltrans deserves credit for blazing a pathway that other agencies and cities should now follow.”

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