The people of Los Angeles celebrated ten years of success for clean air, clean water, and improved quality of life for all under the Collection System Settlement Agreement (CSSA) on November 12, 2014. The Agreement is the result of an epic community struggle to fix the sewer system citywide, reduce spills, clean up stormwater runoff, eliminate noxious odors that disproportionately plagued African-American and Latino communities for decades, and create multibenefit park and water projects. The odors smell like rotten eggs and are caused by hydrogen sulfide escaping from sewers. The formal Agreement, in place from 2004 to 2014, worked so well that community leaders and the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation have agreed to continue working together voluntarily on green and blue infrastructure projects. The City and the people have learned to trust and listen to each other. Experts from around the world visit Los Angeles to learn how the city has cleared sewer spills, odors, and stormwater runoff — and how government agencies can work with grassroots leaders through democratic governance to meet infrastructure needs.
The work went from litigation to partnership under the Agreement. Community leaders from Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, and South Central Los Angeles working with civil rights lawyers, the City, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Regional Water Quality Control Board and mainstream environmentalists reached the $2 billion court-ordered Agreement under the Clean Water Act in 2004. This was the first time the Clean Water Act was used to address sewage odors, apart from overflows. The Los Angeles sewer system is one of the largest in the U.S., making this work significant to the nation beyond Southern California. This is one of the largest sewage cases in U.S. history, according to EPA.
Community leaders from African-American Los Angeles intervened in the Clean Water suit in 2001 because no one else represented their interests. The community leaders actively engaged in all aspects of the Agreement and the litigation leading to it. Engineers, sanitation experts, rocket scientists, and organizers who live in the community worked arm in arm with their civil rights attorneys to prepare expert reports, counter government experts, craft the Agreement, and monitor implementation through the Community Advisory Board.
According to Adel Hagekhalil, Assistant Director of the City’s Bureau of Sanitation and a true community hero, the Community Advisory Board “restored trust between the community and the City. We listen to the community. They provide us real feedback. We provide them accurate information.” Plus: “Results helped. When you drove down Rodeo ten years ago you had to roll up your windows. Now children can walk across the intersection without holding their nose. We have built two state of the art ATFs. We are being visited by experts from around the world to study how we did it.”
According to Ms. Opal Young, a charming African American community leader who serves as the chief of the Advisory Board, “The city’s response under the new settlement has been excellent! It couldn’t get any better. But we will make things happen if the good things don’t keep up.”
The multi-benefit projects include:
- South Central L.A. Wetlands Park transformed a bus parking lot into green space;
- North Atwater Creek Park helped kick off the greening of the L.A. River;
- Garvanza Park Stormwater project captures one million gallons of rain and runoff with underground cisterns that filter and replenish groundwater, irrigate the park, and keep polluted runoff out of the river and ocean;
- Ed Reyes Greenway, part of the L.A. River Master Plan, captures sediment and contaminants before they enter the river; and
- The North Hollywood alley retrofit installed permeable pavers to filter runoff in a Green Streets project.
A new Civil Rights Park funded under the Agreement commemorates the Movement by honoring national and local Civil Rights heroes, while beautifying the community and filtering rainwater. This is the only monument in the City dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement.
Under the Agreement, sanitary sewer spills were cut 75% from the baseline year. Spills caused by fats, oil, and grease from restaurants were reduced by 90%. Sewer-related odor complaints were reduced 38%. A project labor agreement created local green infrastructure jobs and contracts.
Diverse allies under the Agreement include the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Homeowners’ Coalition, Baldwin Hills Estate Homeowners Association (HOA), Baldwin Hills Village Gardens Homes HOA, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, Crenshaw Neighborhoods HOA, Expo Neighbors Block Club, United HOA, and Village Green Homes HOA, working with civil rights attorneys at The City Project and English, Munger & Rice.
To learn more about the Agreement, visit:
The sewer case is not just about fixing the sewer system. It is about the values at stake in equitable urban ecosystem services, green infrastructure, watershed management, and environmental justice. These matters concern economists, ecologists, urban planners, landscape architects, elected officials, and legal and policy scholars and practitioners. See, for example, James Salzman et al., The Most Important Current Research Questions in Urban Ecoystems Services, Duke Environmental Law Journal (forthcoming 2014).