Highway Pact to Stem California Runoff

Millions of gallons of pollution – the equivalent of 285 dump trucks a year – will be kept out of Southern California waters and off of the region's beaches due to an unprecedented agreement approved Jan. 18 by a federal court.

The agreement among the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Santa Monica Baykeeper means the state will dramatically reduce dangerous runoff from 1,000 miles of highway across Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

"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 plaintiffs. "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."

In an average year, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency, more than six million gallons of oil run into state waters from roads and sidewalks. Tests of some Caltrans drains have revealed contamination so dangerous that it qualifies as hazardous waste.

Currently, roads are designed to drain quickly, but not to filter the runoff, so contaminants on the pavement run directly into the region's waters. Contaminated runoff from freeways is the largest and most polluted part of overall stormwater runoff.

When fully implemented, the new arrangement, which settles a lawsuit brought by NRDC and Baykeeper in 1994, is expected to keep more than six million pounds of pollution out of area waters every year, including toxic zinc and lead and other debris. Toxic metals will be reduced by almost 24,000 pounds per year.

Caltrans will start cleaning up the runoff using innovative solutions before it reaches the ocean. Cleanup options include sand traps, catch basins and new porous pavement. Such methods have been tested in studies jointly administered by Caltrans and NRDC and have been shown to be highly 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 No. 1 water pollution problem in America," added Beckman. "Caltrans deserves credit for blazing a pathway that other agencies and cities should now follow."

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

NRDC is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. The Santa Monica Baykeeper's mission is to protect and restore the Santa Monica Bay, San Pedro Bay and adjacent waters through enforcement, fieldwork, and community action.

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