Construction sites are an impactful source of water pollution. Construction activities use a wide variety of pollutants and land disturbance can expose soils contaminated by historic pollution, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals like DDT. Without proper management, every time it rains, stormwater washes sediment and pollutants off these construction sites and into California’s waterways, impairing our rivers, lakes, and oceans. To control and prevent this pollution, the State Water Board adopted the Construction General Stormwater Permit in 2009. Although that permit was set to expire in 2014, the State Water Board has administratively extended it every year since, and only now is the Board in the process of updating and reissuing that permit.
As new drafts of the Construction Permit are released, a dangerous pattern has emerged. Governor Newsom has once again sided with big-corporate interests to protect construction corporations’ profits over protecting water quality in the most overburdened communities in Los Angeles. The initial drafts of the permit previously required much stricter pollution controls than newer drafts. Initially, the permit controlled pollution using multiple numeric limits which work in a commonsense way; if you pollute more than the limit, you violate the permit. Simple, easy, and effective. However, as each subsequent draft was released, those strict compliance obligations were rolled back into toothless monitoring requirements called action levels. These are less intuitive and less protective. Instead of violating the permit if you exceed an action level, construction sites are just required to go back and try again. Instead of making pollution a consequential violation of the permit, these newer drafts give construction sites a free pass to pollute and pollute again until they either finish their project or implement proper management practices.
These rollbacks are bad enough, but when you look at where they’ve occurred, the story becomes even worse. Nearly all of these rollbacks take place in East Los Angeles communities that bear some of the highest pollution burden in the state. This is textbook environmental injustice. Low-income communities and communities of color are forced to deal with the consequences of pollution so industry can save costs.
Fifty years ago, when the Clean Water Act was first passed, it was mandated that we would have clean waters by 1983. Yet California keeps justifying environmental degradation by pointing to the costs of pollution control and ignoring the benefits of clean water. This environmental sacrifice is unacceptable.
California Coastkeeper Alliance has been engaged with this permit process since the beginning, advocating for stronger pollution controls so everyone in California can have fishable, swimmable, and drinkable waters.
Stay informed of the Construction General Stormwater Permit and our work to protect California’s waters by subscribing to California Coastkeeper Alliance’s monthly newsletter, becoming a lifetime member, or following us on social media: @CA_Waterkeepers.
Policy Analyst Cody Phillips advocates for statewide policies that protect water quality and access to clean water throughout California.