A River Runs Beneath It

Santa Ana River toll road elevates eco-fears

Copper and other heavy metal sediments promise medical problems severer than the usual sniffles, earaches and flu symptoms associated with ocean pollution. Heavy metals have been linked to brain damage, immune-system failure and other long-term illnesses for people who ingest them.

And despite the lack of public debate at the County Hall of Administration, these public-health dangers have been well-documented. In cases all over the country, researchers have discovered a connection between highway runoff and water pollution. Traffic-related pollutants are a major component of runoff fouling Wisconsin's Madison lakes. Copper from automobile brake pads is a significant source of San Francisco Bay pollution. Dirt from highway construction has choked the Illinois River at the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. In Everett, Washington, black liquid sloshes through Interstate 5 bridge drains into the Snohomish River. That has so alarmed Washington state regulators that they now require runoff plans be part of any new highway construction.

And for those who believe such pollution can't happen in Grand Master Planned OC, take note: toll roads already pollute local waters. At an April 1999 meeting about proposed improvements to the Aliso Creek watershed, county project manager Larry Paul mentioned that highway-construction and traffic-related runoff—including unacceptable levels of copper—from the San Joaquin Hills toll road is pouring into pristine Laguna Canyon and flushing into the ocean. Paul added—incredulously, it seemed—that no one had considered runoff when officials green-lighted the project.

The EPA now recommends that officials include in their road-building plans strategies to deal with runoff rather than waiting until after a road has been built and begun polluting. As if speaking directly to the Santa Ana River toll-road planners, the EPA adds: "An important consideration in planning is the distance between a highway and a watercourse."

It's a safe bet that "directly above" is not the distance the EPA had in mind. But in trying to confirm that, the Weekly was treated to a classic bureaucratic runaround. A call to the EPA's West Coast region office that deals with nonpoint source pollution was met with a recorded message that the "position is vacant." EPA press officer David Schmidt said he could probably find someone on staff to respond, but he later called back and said his agency would only get involved if it's discovered the toll-road project had been built without a permit and was discharging pollution. The agency that would deal with potential water-quality problems from the project would be the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Schmidt advised.

After calls to several corps offices, we were given the name of the person who could speak about the toll-road project. She later called and said we'd need to talk to another person, who was out sick. At press time, that person had not returned our calls.

But corps representatives have previously revealed their feelings about the over-the-river road. During another incarnation of the project—which dies and un-dies more frequently than Dracula—corps official Bruce Henderson told the LA Times in October 1994 that there were no apparent environmental obstacles to hamper the project. The only concern, he said, was that columns used to support the road might affect "the flow of water." Other than that, Henderson reportedly told the Times, "I don't see anything that the corps would not permit at this point. . . . It doesn't sound like it's a horrible project. It's a big, wide river. You would think they can design structures that can withstand the flow of the river and still allow traffic on the facility."

Mel Placilla, the project manager for the private group that later abandoned the toll road to another developer, boasted in the same story, "I don't think we'll have a bugs and bunnies issue here."

As long as the bugs and bunnies are fine and the water flows freely, it seems the corps would have little to object to even if it were proved water quality might suffer under a toll road. At an Aliso Creek watershed meeting, a corps official said her agency's mission is not to improve water quality but to ensure proper flood control. She stressed that water-quality concerns must be taken up with the EPA—which brings us back to the starting point of the bureaucratic runaround.

The idea of using a river channel to alleviate traffic congestion is not new. In 1989, then-Assemblyman Richard Katz floated the idea of converting one-third of the Los Angeles River into an expressway. The plan was mocked by engineers, environmentalists and late-night TV comics before a 1992 storm turned the normally pallid concrete channel into, well, a real river. That was the deathblow for Katz's dream. During his bid for mayor of LA a few years later, political opponents seized on the so-called "Katz Freeway." He lost badly.

Still, considering their unnatural states, concrete rivers will always be subject to such wacky plans. As Lewis MacAdams, co-founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, put it, "It's easier to destroy something if you call it a flood-control channel."

Anyone in a rush to destroy the Santa Ana River would be wise to consider potential legal ramifications. In 1997, Caltrans agreed to a nearly $3 million settlement after the nonprofit environmental group San Diego BayKeeper proved the agency's sloppy runoff-control practices throughout the region were polluting Mission Bay.

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