Proposed regulations to clean up trash in the Los Angeles River and other waterways are raising the hackles of city officials and developers who claim the rules would set a costly precedent.

The regulations, to be considered Jan. 25 by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, set a zero-tolerance limit on trash and are the first of dozens that the agency must adopt under federal orders to clean up the region's dirty beaches, rivers, streams and other bodies of water. From construction-site runoff, to heavy metals discharged by manufacturers and bacteria in treated sewage, the regulations would set a limit on how much of a particular contaminant each of the region's polluted water bodies could handle each day.

Opponents say the trash clean-up plans could cost more than $300 million to implement regionally.

Environmentalists contend that the rules are necessary and critical to enforcement of the decades-old Clean Water Act.

"Obviously, we don't want to have trash in our rivers, but the fact remains that it's unrealistic to expect it to be zero," said Tim Piaske, director of environmental affairs with the Building Industry Association of Southern California, which represents 1,800 builders, developers and others in the industry. "We are concerned that they are setting the limit not based on any sound science, and the precedent it will set for future regulations."

Piaske and others believe that impending regulations on sediment and heavy metals would have a far more severe impact on business than rules concerning trash.

The trash regulations, if passed, would require a broad range of expensive clean-up measures over the 10 years they would gradually be implemented. The measures include beefing up street sweeping or installing devices to capture trash in storm drains. Responsibility for compliance would fall on cities' shoulders. But cash-strapped municipalities are likely to try to pass along those costs to residents or businesses.

Critics fear that the cost of all the new regulations could reach up to $10 billion regionally, but with the quality of the region's surface waters at stake, environmentalist are not backing down, especially after their hard-fought legal victory.

Clean Water Act

"I think this particular TMDL (total maximum daily load) is going to be very expensive, but after a rainstorm you can literally walk on top of water on the trash," said Leslie Mintz, an attorney with environmental group Heal the Bay. "But this was not some arbitrary and capricious act. It's a very critical part of the Clean Water Act that has not been enforced for decades."

The act, which was passed in 1972, required the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set limits for all of the nation's polluted rivers, lakes and other surface water bodies, by 1979.

But the federal agency never did, instead concentrating on what it felt was more pressing needs, such as overhauling the nation's sewage treatment plants and directly cleaning up discharges from industrial polluters.

But the EPA, which has been sued by environmental groups, is now requiring state, regional and local agencies across the nation that carry out federal regulations to set the trash and other limits.

John Bishop, chief of regional programs for the board's Watershed Management Division, contended that critics are playing up the potential costs by focusing on the highest estimates involving the use of sophisticated devices that prevent all trash from escaping storm drains.

Those devices mechanically separate runoff from trash, and can cost as much as $500,000 per unit. The regional board estimates at a cost of $330 million, enough of them could be installed over 10 years to solve the river's trash problem, not including $40 million in annual maintenance costs.

But Bishop also points out that there are cheaper ways for the dozens of cities whose runoff flows into the L.A. River to control the problem. That includes stepping up enforcement of litter laws and employing cheaper devices that capture trash at the entry to the storm drain system at the curb, but those options require more maintenance.

"The cheapest is to do enforcement; the most expensive is to do these full-capture trash deflection systems," he said.

Decision defended

Regional board officials also defend their decision to set a zero limit, saying there is no reason to have any trash in the river. Board officials also say that further scientific studies could prompt them to raise the limit.

Ray Kearney, principal sanitary engineer for the L.A. Bureau of Sanitiation's Regulatory Affairs Division, said that the city supports cleaning up the river, but that the trash regulation is so strict and costly it would force costs to be passed off in the form of higher sewer rates.

"We all want clean water, but no one is placing a price tag on it," Kearney said. "It's really the public's money, and the public needs to decide how they want to spend that money."

Mintz contends that there is broad popular support to clean up the region's waterways, noting that trash in the Los Angeles River and other water courses often ends up fouling local beaches and driving away tourist dollars.

But critics warn that residents and businesses are simply unaware of just how much the new regulations would cost. Indeed, Piaske of the BIA said that business and industry has been slow to line up against the measure.

"We are trying to build awareness," he said. "We understand that once a precedent gets set, it's very hard to undo it."

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