California High Court Allows Suits Against Water Companies

By Cat Lazaroff

LOS ANGELES, California, February 6, 2002 (ENS) - In a precedent setting victory for clean water rights, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that people harmed by drinking contaminated water can legally sue their water utility for failing to provide clean drinking water.

The ruling came in the case of about 2,500 San Gabriel Valley residents who sued industrial polluters and water companies over the alleged contamination of their water supplies. Many of the plaintiffs claim they contracted cancer or other diseases after drinking water polluted by industrial solvents, solid rocket fuel and other chemicals.

Most previous such lawsuits have targeted only the polluters responsible for contaminating groundwater supplies, not the utilities that pump the water to consumers. This case, the first to test the legal basis for holding utilities responsible for delivering clean water, could provide an example for similar litigation across the state and nationwide.


The San Gabriel Basin supplies drinking water to 1.4 million people in eastern Los Angeles County (Map courtesy San Gabriel Valley Water Association)
The ruling was hailed as "a victory for water users in the San Gabriel area and for water consumers all over the state," said David Rosen, a partner at Rose, Klein & Marias, the law firm which represented the plaintiffs in the case, Hartwell Corporation vs. Superior Court (Santamaria).

"Other populations of people have been waiting to see whether they could go to court, whether their right to go to court would be taken from them, and it wasn't," Rosen added.

The San Gabriel Basin supplies drinking water to 1.4 million people in eastern Los Angeles County. Parts of the San Gabriel Basin were designated as a federal Superfund site in 1984, due to decades of unsafe chemical dumping and the discovery, in 1979, of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene in the groundwater.

In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that the contamination includes perchlorate, derived largely from solid rocket fuel waste. Because perchlorate requires different cleanup methods from VOCs, cleanup efforts in the basin slowed and nearly halted, with some wells needing to be closed entirely.

A $200 million cleanup is now underway, with funds from the EPA and several area companies.

More than one quarter of the 366 water supply wells in the San Gabriel Valley have been contaminated, surveys show. The pollutants are also making their way underground into the Central Basin, which supplies the greater part of Los Angeles County with groundwater.

Valley residents sued more than two dozen industrial companies that allegedly dumped contaminants into the groundwater, along with nine utilities, municipal and private water agencies, for allowing the pollution to reach household taps.

pumping station

The California Public Utilities Commission governs the operations of most of the state's water companies (Photo by Charles O’Rear, courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
Previous court decisions, including a 1999 appeals court ruling that blocked lawsuits against water companies regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), suggested that the plaintiffs could not legally sue the utilities. The defendants argued that the PUC, not individual companies, has jurisdiction in such cases.

But the plaintiffs argued that the PUC is not responsible for enforcing water safety, and the judge seems to have agreed.

Justice Ming Chin wrote that the San Gabriel Valley plaintiffs can sue all of the defendants, polluters and utilities alike, allowing a jury to determine whether the water companies failed to meet federal and state standards for drinking water safety.

"A court has jurisdiction to enforce a water utility's legal obligation to comply with PUC standards and policies and to award damages for violations," Chin wrote. "We conclude the PUC's regulation of water quality and safety does not preempt damage claims alleging violations of federal and state drinking water standards against the providers subject to PUC regulation."

Noting that a 2000 PUC investigation determined that the utilities, for the last 25 years, "had provided water that was in no way harmful or dangerous to health," Chin added that lawsuits must be limited to cases where utilities violated existing government standards.

Lawyers for the water companies warned that the ruling opens the door to dozens of lawsuits, the costs of which could substantially raise the price of drinking water. They said they would not seek to settle the lawsuits, but would attempt to prove in court that their water deliveries met all applicable government standards.