The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District has been ordered to pay more than $725,000 in lawyer’s fees incurred by a local group that challenged the district’s environmental impact report in its plan to reduce chloride contamination in the Santa Clara River.
A legal cost, ultimately, to be paid by the ratepayers.
The legal fees were accrued by a group of unhappy SCV ratepayers, called the Affordable Clean Water Alliance, who filed a lawsuit challenging the district’s report.
On Wednesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered the sanitation district to pay attorney’s fees amounting to $725,435.32.
“Although many of ACWA’s claims were dismissed by the Court, the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) law does allow for the challenger to seek attorney’s fees if any claim is successful,” district spokesman Bryan Langpap told The Signal Monday.
ACWA originally submitted a motion for almost $1 million in attorney’s fees, he said.
“Based on our review of that motion, the SCVSD filed a motion demanding a significant reduction,” Langpap said.
On September 13, 2016 the court apparently agreed, reducing the ACWA’s fee amount by 25 percent. But, the reduction wasn’t as much as the sanitation district hoped for.
“The SCVSD is very disappointed in the Court’s ruling and believe a larger reduction was warranted,” Langpap said.
The $700,000-plus legal cost would be paid by about 102,000 customers, defined as capacity units, who are hooked up to the sewer system, according to the district. Each unit represents the discharge of sewage.
Based on that, the shared cost works out to about $7 paid by each district ratepayer.
In its first lawsuit filed in 2013, the clean water group challenged the environmental studies used by the district to support its chloride-removal plan.
Judge James C. Chalfant agreed with ACWA lawyers and called for more studies on the effects of recycled water on an endangered species of native fish, district lawyers said, noting they would respond specifically to those concerns.
He wanted district officials to explain in greater detail how they will protect the unarmored threespine stickleback — an endangered species of native fish.
“The legal challenge has caused work on the chloride compliance project to stop pending completion of further environmental review regarding the impacts to the Unarmored Three Spine Stickleback Fish under reduced discharge conditions that has been required by the Court,” Langpap said.
“The delay in the chloride compliance project will make meeting the State-mandated compliance deadline more challenging and increases the risk that additional fines will be imposed on the Sanitation District,” he said.
Again, any fines leveled against the District would be a cost passed on to ratepayers in terms of rate increases.
Environmental lawyer Robert Silverstein who argued the case in court told The Signal Monday that he repeatedly tried to avoid going to court and, since 2013, sought a working environmental settlement with the district.
“We repeatedly tried to settle with the district, and made several attempts to avoid litigation,” he said. “Over three years, we’ve made several attempts.
“Every single time (we tried) they dismissed us and forced us to go to trial,” he said.
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