Three local waste-disposal agencies have been accused of discharging highly illegal amounts of pollutants into the Russian and Petaluma rivers. The allegation is based on self-reported toxin levels from the facilities themselves.
The Petaluma River Council (PRC) and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) have notified Redwood Empire Disposal, the West Sonoma County Disposal Service and the Novato Disposal Service of their intent to sue over these violations.
The disposal services, all part of the Ratto Group Inc., are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and the California General Industrial Stormwater Permit, as well as certain limits dictated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Stormwater runoff is essentially rain that has mixed with toxins on the ground, so any facility that deals with pollutants is responsible for treating its stormwater before discharging it. Many companies use materials that create contamination when they come in contact with water.
Discharging water is a legal practice, and companies routinely discharge stormwater into the rivers after rains. However, the water that has been dumped by the Ratto Group's agencies over the past five years has not been adequately treated for the removal of pollutants before being dumped. Although the agencies' self-reported tests regularly showed that the discharged water was too high in aluminum, zinc, copper, iron, lead, oil and grease, among other contaminants, the facilities reported separate visual observations that were inconsistent with the tests, saying there was no evidence of contaminants.
"We were incredulous as we started looking at the numbers," says CSPA executive director Bill Jennings. "That 20 years after the Industrial Stormwater Permit, sites like this can continue is astonishing." He adds that the level of pollution from these facilities evidences "almost a dereliction" in enforcing the law. "To go much higher, you'd be in the level of hazardous waste," he says.
The Ratto Group is accused of some of the most severe dumping the environmental groups say they have seen in years. If convicted, the group could pay up to $37,500 per day per violation, according to an intent to file suit released by Michael Lozeau, the attorney for the CSPA and PRC. Although the Ratto Group had not responded to the intent to file suit at press time, they have until Aug. 5 to contact Lozeau and attempt to reach a settlement.
"Based on reports, we have certainly one of the more alarming sites we've seen," Lozeau says. "Relative to other stormwaters, they have an impressive array of discharges that are violating standards, we believe, as well as applicable benchmarks that agencies set."
The polluted water can be toxic to humans, animals and vegetation. The plaintiffs are especially concerned about fish, as well as various types of plantlife. Lozeau, noting that lead is one of the contaminants, points out that before environmental regulations, painting boats with lead paint was a regular practice because it would kill any algae that tried to grow on the hull. "[The regulations] are not just designed to protect humans," he reminds, "but also designed to protect animals and aquatic life."
The pollutants have an effect that goes much further than the banks of our local rivers. The stormwater dumped in the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Russian River eventually flows into the Pacific Ocean, while the Petaluma River feeds into the San Francisco Bay.
"The Petaluma River is already one of the worst water-quality inflows to the San Francisco Bay," says David Keller, executive director of the PRC. "Nobody has gotten control of the mess. The Laguna de Santa Rosa already suffers from bad water quality as well, and, again, there is a huge impact to fish and wildlife and likely to the groundwater recharge basin."
Lozeau says that although there are methods of removing some pollutants from the river, the case focuses on reforming the company's practice. "[The agencies] need to comply with the permit as soon as possible and apply the best technology available to get this stuff out of their water before it's released [into the rivers]," he says. "They have to treat the stormwater before it leaves the site." Neither the environmental groups nor their lawyer have received any response from the Ratto Group, which did not return calls from the Bohemian seeking comment.
While the river is used for discharging by many cities and companies, there are a few fundamental differences between their dumping and that of the Ratto Group. The cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma both discharge wastewater into the river, but that is sewage, not stormwater, which, while not potable, has been properly treated.
"The Russian River is, paradoxically, our source of very well-cleaned water but upstream is a massive dumping ground for treated wastewater," says Keller, who also cites mining as a factor in river contamination. "The more we do gravel mining, the more we remove our natural filtration. At some point, [the level of contamination] is going to hit the wall," he says. If it does, he says, restoring the river will be extremely expensive, whereas cleaning the inflows to the river now is a simpler and healthier solution.
Despite the relative frequency of river-related concerns, the environmental groups emphasize the magnitude of this particular case.
Keller says this case is one of the worst the area has seen. "It is way at the top of the list in terms of the volume, the number of instances and the levels of contaminants. And these are toxic substances, not just something that's going to smell bad."
"To find three sites like this that had escaped scrutiny was surprising," Jennings says. "These sites had shown virtually no evidence of any meaningful effort to comply [with regulations]."