OC Water District: Fouling the Waters

The following op-ed was written by Lucy Dunn, OCBC President and CEO, and was originally published in the OC Register on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.

Orange County Water District was formed 100 years ago to manage a vast groundwater basin under northern and central Orange County. OCWD has done some good things over the years, even receiving international acclaim for innovative wastewater treatment and recycling. The district even helped Disneyland recycle water from its lagoon in the renovation of California Adventure.

But for all the past good, OCWD now is not so good. Almost 10 years ago, OCWD decided on a new, risky strategy. It began to hire out-of-town lawyers to investigate potential pollution and sue businesses for the cleanup, even if other experienced state and federal agencies – including the Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Toxic Control Substances, Regional Water Quality Control Board and county Department of Health – were already guiding pollution cleanup.

The Orange County Water District underground water supply serves 2.4 million residents and is an important source of local water, together with imported water from Northern California’s Bay Delta and the Colorado River.

OCWD thought it could pile on, set its own cleanup standards, investigate at whim, demand reimbursement of their exorbitant costs, and ignore well-established state and federal rules for cleanup that businesses and government have followed for decades. And, it never once asked to meet or confer with the businesses it targeted.

Almost 100 businesses, even family trusts, were sued or threatened to be sued, whether or not they had anything to do with alleged water pollution. In some cases, OCWD sought “shakedown” money settlements in order to be released from years of costly litigation. Under this aggressive scheme, however, businesses already in the process of cleaning up their sites under expert government agencies were forced to stop their cleanup while litigation took center stage. Not only did this delay cleanups, but it also diverted money to needless litigation that otherwise could have gone to cleanup efforts.

In almost 10 years of litigation, OCWD received more than $21 million in so-called settlements (on top of their own $250 million in reserves), yet not one drop of water has been cleaned.

And then, something remarkable happened. After reviewing the evidence, two well-respected 20-year-veteran Orange County Superior Court judges – Kim Dunning and Nancy Wieben Stock – in two court cases and eight separate decisions, ruled against OCWD. In fact, on May 10, 2013, one court found that OCWD itself caused substantial nitrate and perchlorate contamination and wasn’t in any hurry to clean it up. The court also found that OCWD was not entitled to recover its costs of investigation.

With all these court rulings piling up against OCWD, you’d think the district would rethink its strategy, but no. Instead, it solicited Orange County legislators, like state Sen. Lou Correa, to sponsor a bill, Senate Bill 658, claiming that the Orange County judges “misinterpreted” the law and that OCWD should be allowed its investigation costs (retroactively, mind you), that it should have “superagency” powers enabling them beyond existing law, with unchecked authority to charge you and your business whatever the agency thinks is appropriate.

If you own a business, or have family and friends who do, you know that most folks do not react well to demands from government agencies like OCWD and their lawyers to pay large sums of money when that business did not cause the problem, or tried to clean up its portion in a cost-effective way that wouldn’t put them out of business. Or worse yet: when OCWD demands you pay for investigation of pollution caused by OCWD.

So it is not surprising that O.C. businesses have dug in and vigorously defended these lawsuits and opposed SB658, which is OCWD’s attempt to change the law and ignore two judges. I know Correa understands that transparency, fair play and cost-effective pollution cleanup is important to all of us – not prolonged litigation and secret lawyer deals that hurt businesses as the economy shows signs of slow recovery.

Show your support today for Sen. Lou Correa by letting him know that SB658 is not fair and doesn’t solve anything. For more information, contact Bryan Starr, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.


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