By Noaki Schwartz, The Associated Press
Article Launched: 03/04/2008 12:15:30 AM PST

Regional water officials have decided to issue violation notices to 20 cities and Los Angeles County, threatening them with tens of thousands of dollars in daily fines for repeatedly polluting Santa Monica Bay, the beach playground for millions.
The move is the culmination of a decades-long effort to clean up the area’s bacteria pollution. In 2006, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board finally voted to start fining cities $10,000 a day if the water at their beaches did not meet clean-water standards.

Violation notices were to be sent out this morning to El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Inglewood and cities on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, among others.

The letter also issues a stern warning to any city that decides to ignore the requirements. In addition to the $10,000-a-day fine, the letter also warns of fines up to $10,000 if any requirement in the order was violated. The board could also ask the state attorney general to seek civil liabilities in court of up to $25,000 each day a violation occurs.

In the South Bay on Monday, word of the impending notices seemed to catch officials off guard.

“It’s a surprise,” said El Segundo Mayor Kelly McDowell. “If you look at Heal the Bay grades, Dockweiler consistently ranks among the top beaches in Southern California, and we are right next door. … We haven’t had a sewage spill or anything else.”

Redondo Beach City Manager Bill Workman said his staff had not been notified by the regional board of any violations. He called the city “the leader in the South Bay in protecting the environment with our capital projects and diverting storm water.”

“We’ll continue to do that and be interested in seeing their recommendations,” Workman added. Manhattan Beach Mayor Jim Aldinger added, “We always get fairly decent grades, except after rains.”

In an e-mailed statement, board chairwoman Francine Diamond said she could not comment on the specifics of the violations but said “it is critical that water quality laws be followed.”

“The health of our residents, visitors, multibillion-dollar coastal economy, and environment depends upon it,” she said.

The city of Santa Monica was one of the top violators with 795 instances in which bacteria levels were too high. The water was tested in 2006 from September through October and again in 2007 from April through October. The notice required the city to provide a variety of information, including the cause of the violations, the results of investigations into the source of the bacteria and the city’s plan to clean up the problem.

In addition to Santa Monica, other top polluters included Los Angeles County and the cities of Los Angeles, Malibu and Culver City, the board said.
In a related action, two environmental groups filed suit Monday to force Los Angeles County and Malibu to clean up water discharged into local waters.
Mark Pestrella, assistant deputy director for the county Department of Public Works, said the county developed a program overseen by the Regional Water Quality Control Board to pinpoint types and sources of bay pollutants.

“We are committed to keeping our waterways safe and protecting the health” of residents, Pestrella said in a statement.

The ongoing effort to clean up the bacteria pollution stems from a larger plan outlined in a 1999 settlement of a lawsuit between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental groups Heal the Bay and Santa Monica BayKeeper. The federal lawsuit filed by the environmental organizations argued that the EPA had for 20 years failed to ensure the state’s waters were clean, as mandated by federal law.

Government officials and the groups worked out a schedule to set limits on a variety of pollutants that end up in Los Angeles and Ventura counties’ waters including bacteria, trash, toxic metals and chemical pollutants.

Local governments must meet “total maximum daily loads,” or limits, on these pollutants that make their way into the county’s numerous watersheds. Setting and enforcing bacteria limits was the first of about 100 of the pollution limits that conservationists hoped would eventually be enforced.

But in the near decade since the federal consent decree, however, many of the beaches still aren’t clean.

Most contamination happens during the winter when rains overload storm drains and sewage systems, washing waste directly into the ocean. Swimming in such waters can cause gastrointestinal, respiratory and other illnesses.
The cities that encircle Santa Monica Bay were given until the summer of 2006 to clean up the bacterial pollution flowing into the waters. That requirement applied to the 44 beaches that stretch from the Los Angeles and Ventura County line to just south of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

During the 2006 board meeting, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger weighed in and urged members to enforce the standards and “demonstrate your strong commitment to protecting beach water quality.”

Daily Breeze staff writers Andrea Woodhouse and Kristin S. Agostoni contributed to this article. Southern California governments that will receive Regional Water Quality Control Board violation notices for pollution of the Santa Monica Bay: 

El Segundo
Hermosa Beach
Los Angeles
Los Angeles County
Manhattan Beach
Palos Verdes Estates
Rancho Palos Verdes
Redondo Beach
Rolling Hills
Rolling Hills Estates

– The Associated Press