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Lompoc reaches tentative settlement for Clean Water Act violations in Santa Ynez watershed

Santa Ynez River in Lompoc
Flickr / Joe Steed
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The entrance of the Santa Ynez River outside Lompoc.

The nonprofit Environmental Defense Center (EDC) sued Lompoc in 2020 after they found out that the city had been releasing contaminated water into the San Miguelito Creek and the Santa Ynez River. The law firm said contamination levels violated the federal Clean Water Act, which regulates surface water requirements.

Alicia Roessler is the Senior Attorney at EDC. She said the city has been polluting the water for about 20 years, and in the past five years the group was able to identify 3,000 violations of the Clean Water Act at the watershed.

“Even though we could look back on their data and see they've been violating for 20 years, we can only sue them five years back. So in the last five years we brought in our lawsuit, we had [found] approximately 3,000 violations, which is pretty astronomical. It's significant to say the least, which is why we decided something needed to be done.”

Roessler said while the city was polluting the watershed for years, Lompoc's drinking water supply wasn’t affected.

Lompoc, CA
Flickr / Chuck Gerber
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The southern hills of the White Cliffs in Lompoc, CA.

She said the Clean Water Act was established to make sure municipalities or agencies do not damage the local ecosystem and environment through water contamination, and that Lompoc’s violation of these rules limiting contaminants is a serious threat to the environment.

“These limits were put in there for a reason, and they were to establish that is the max amount of pollution you can put in — it's not a zero level. It says up to this point and that point is your max level, and we've proven by science if you exceed that level then you are damaging the environment," Roessler said.

KCBX News reached out to a representative of the city of Lompoc who responded with a press release. It said the court found the city liable for 86 of the 3,000 violations, and that those 86 violations were due to false positives from inaccurate testing.

“None caused environmental harm," the release said.

Roessler is skeptical of that.

“They got to pick which test they used. Nobody mandated it. So if the test wasn't working, they could have changed and picked another EPA-approved test any time they wanted, and they didn't. And so it was something that the judge didn't give any credence to, and I don't think the EPA would come after them if it was just a testing issue either.”

Lompoc is expected to pay $260,000 to the Rose Foundation, an environmental advocacy non-profit institution that Roessler said will put the money towards improvement of the Santa Ynez Watershed.

The city’s press release said they have now "corrected the testing problem." The U.S. Department of Justice still has to approve the settlement.

Gabriela Fernandez is a general assignment reporter at KCBX News. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an Associate Producer on the TahoeLand podcast.