Tim Strelitz has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the past decade to prevent rainwater from carrying toxic chemicals at his South L.A. metals plant off site to storm drains and the ocean.

But if new state water runoff regulations take effect, Strelitz said he may be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more – if not millions – to install a water filtration system.

“There’s just no way we can afford to meet this,” said Strelitz, president of California Metal-X Inc. “Even the rainwater falling from the sky would not meet the standards they are setting.”

He is one of hundreds of industrial company owners, developers and construction contractors in Los Angeles County, and thousands statewide, who are fighting proposed state regulations on water runoff. They say the rules are too costly and could force some companies to move out of California.

“Storm water fees will rise in all categories, putting more economic pressure on businesses struggling to recover from years of recession,” said Valerie Nera, environmental lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce.

A key issue, business interests say, is the state’s decision to set numeric limits on the concentrations of metals and other toxic chemicals in the rainwater that flows off of commercial and industrial properties. Those numeric limits have not been set; the state Water Quality Control Board is to do that on a chemical-by-chemical basis. Currently, there are no such specific limits on chemicals and metals in rain runoff, although there are concentration limits in water that’s used in the manufacturing process and allowed to run off properties.

Now, most businesses have to test their rainwater runoff once every five years, although some must do so annually. But under the proposed new rules, water sampling must be done monthly. What’s more, if numeric limits are imposed, it’s more likely that a business will have to install and operate an expensive system to catch and clean its rainwater before letting it flow off the property.

A separate set of rules the state water board enacted two years ago targets developers and construction contractors building major projects, requiring them to build water catch basins to filter out dirt and other contaminants. Developers and construction contractors have filed suit to block the regulations. Until that suit is resolved, those rules are not in effect.

Recrafting rules

The set of rules proposed earlier this year is aimed at major industrial facilities, and bus and truck yards, requiring increased monitoring of the sites and, in some cases, installation of filtration devices. A coalition of industrial companies and other business interests protested, forcing the state to recraft the rules.

Both sets of regulations are intended to reduce the flow of pollutants into coastal waters after rainstorms. When the polluted water hits the ocean, it can contaminate marine life and pose health hazards for swimmers.

State and regional water boards have for decades imposed monitoring requirements and other measures to control the flow of runoff into the ocean. Recently, to meet state requirements, city of L.A. officials proposed requiring developers of multifamily units and commercial properties to install water absorption systems or pay a fee of $13 for each gallon of water that runs off their properties. After an outcry from developers, city officials dropped the fee. Revised rules are due out later this year.

The latest round of state regulations began two years ago in response to court rulings and pressure from environmental groups to do more. The state Water Quality Control Board issued rules for developments and construction projects larger than 10 acres that for the first time impose numeric limits on contaminants in rainwater runoff as well as much stricter monitoring requirements.

“These pollution limits are long overdue,” said Liz Crosson, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper, an environmental group formed to push for the cleanup of Santa Monica Bay. “We can’t afford to keep degrading our environment.”

But developers and construction contractors say the measures they would have to take to comply with the limits would be prohibitively expensive and in some cases impossible to implement.

Holly Schroeder, chief executive of the Los Angeles-Ventura County chapter of the Building Industry Association, said the cost to comply would start at about $5,000 an acre and rise to $60,000 an acre in cases where filtration systems must be installed or other measures taken to comply with numeric limits. She said construction contractors and developers would have to absorb the cost in the short run, though the added cost would eventually show up in the prices of new homes and in commercial property lease rates.

A ruling from Superior Court in Sacramento is expected in the next few months; an appeal by the losing side is considered likely.

Los Angeles hit

The other rules targeting industrial companies cover metal working facilities, cement manufacturers, recycling plants and several other industries. A total of about 10,000 facilities are targeted statewide, including some public sector bus yards. The county would be hit particularly hard because of the high concentrations of industrial plants in many parts of the region.

The regulations also require companies to monitor runoff themselves, instead of contracting with an industry group as had been common practice.

“The state has done no cost analysis of what it would take for companies to comply with these regulations,” said Rochelle Lewis, spokeswoman for a statewide business coalition formed to fight the regulations. “We are also startled by the state’s approach of setting numeric limits without showing any evidence that these limits would improve water quality.”

The compliance costs could be enormous. At a 1,000-acre cement plant just outside the Mojave Desert city of Victorville, operators estimate it will cost at least $2 million to construct catch basins. The cost could soar to $14 million if it’s determined that a water filtration system is necessary to comply with the numeric limits for contaminated water runoff.

“This comes on top of all the compliance costs we’re facing with other state regulations,” said Frank Sheets, government affairs manager for TXI Riverside Cement, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Texas Industries Inc. that operates the facility. “The continued pile-on of these regulations is making it impossible for companies like ours to compete with imports.”

The Baykeeper’s Crosson called these cost figures an exaggeration.

“We have worked with industry over the years,” she said. “There are affordable ways to do this.”

In the county, some companies say they would be hit with a huge jump in monitoring costs under the draft regulations issued earlier this year.

At the Carson facility of Rancho Cucamonga-based Keep On Trucking Co., which transports metals and other substances, a contractor for the California Trucking Association audits the site once a year and sends a report to the state, all covered by the company’s annual dues to the association.

Full-time consultant

But under the proposed regulations, Keep On Trucking must file reports once a month and the company could not rely on the trucking association for the auditing service. The company would likely have to hire a full-time consultant to do the monitoring reports.

“The proposed new storm water runoff permit process would place a whole new set of untimely regulatory burdens on our Carson facility,” said John Hallaway, the company’s operations president for the site.

Hallaway said the cost could jump 10-fold over what the company currently spends, “with no proven environmental benefits.”

The outcry from Keep On Trucking and hundreds of other businesses in the coalition has forced water board staff back to consider revisions; a new set of rules is due out in the next couple of weeks.

Board spokesman George Kostyrko said last week that the agency cannot comment on the industry complaints until the revised regulations are released.

Kostyrko said hearings will be scheduled this fall on the revised rules, which could come up for a board vote early next year.

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