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Local Air Regulator Continues to Disregard Tribal Requests & Attempts to Expand Its Operating Budget — All Paid for by Angelenos

Oct. 19, 2022 (LOS ANGELES)
 — The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) took legal action Tuesday to protect Los Angeles water customers from regulatory overreach by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (Great Basin). Great Basin prompted the lawsuit by attempting to illegally impose $1.4 million in fines against LADWP for refusing to construct an unapproved project without tribal consent in an area on Owens Lake containing significant tribal cultural resources.

For more than 20 years, LADWP has been funding and implementing effective dust control measures at Owens Lake in Inyo County as part of the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program. Since the dust control program began, LADWP ratepayers have spent more than $2.5 billion and successfully reduced dust emissions from the lakebed by 99.4%. Despite this achievement, Great Basin has refused to acknowledge the success of the program and instead has issued a series of orders and associated fines that demonstrate a clear pattern of overreach of its regulatory role.

“Enough is enough. Angelenos have spent over two billion dollars to control dust at Owens Lake.  Great Basin is now attempting to squeeze Los Angeles families for even more money, while disregarding the objections of Indigenous peoples and the fulfillment of our regulatory obligations,” said Cynthia McClain-Hill, President of the LA Board of Water and Power Commissioners. “More than 20% of our ratepayers live below the poverty line, and we cannot allow the people of Los Angeles to serve as a blank check for Great Basin’s illegal orders.”

As the regulatory agency for Owens Lake, Great Basin is obligated to follow the law, its own rules and the terms laid out in a 2014 Stipulated Judgment before ordering projects and imposing fines. With this latest order, the District’s actions disregard a Superior Court decision issued just three weeks ago, violate the District’s own rules, impose exorbitant fines on Los Angeles ratepayers and demonstrate a complete disregard for potential harm to Indigenous resources. LADWP strongly disputes Great Basin’s illegal actions and its unwarranted attempt to further fund its agency on the backs of Los Angeles residents, who fund 80% of Great Basin’s annual operating budget, including their attorneys and legal fees.

A small portion of the land used for the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program has been found to contain significant cultural resources of Indigenous peoples. Since 2018, LADWP has been working cooperatively with local tribes to achieve a tribal-led solution to air quality mitigation projects on these lands. One of these tribes has refused to allow dust control projects that could disturb sensitive cultural resources and stated it was disenfranchised by Great Basin’s actions. Still, Great Basin issued an order to compel LADWP to construct non-EPA approved projects on these lands without tribal consent, and the regulator has since levied $1.4 million in illegal fines against LADWP ratepayers for standing by the tribe’s wishes and complying with the law.

“LADWP has been a committed partner in the Owens Valley for decades, collaborating with local tribes and regulators to efficiently manage the region’s cultural and environmental resources,” said Paul Liu, Manager of the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program. “We are shocked to see Great Basin attempting to mandate that LADWP act in opposition to the requests of our tribal partners.”

Last month, the Sacramento Superior Court issued a ruling that refused to uphold the fines that Great Basin had attempted to issue against LADWP ratepayers and concluded the Stipulated Judgment did not contain terms relating to how the regulator could order mitigation of the areas with known cultural resources in future. This most recent action from Great Basin is yet another attempt to circumvent the proceedings of the court and levy fines against Angelenos.

Due to a law passed in 1983 (SB 270), Great Basin is the only air district in California with a specific budget stream that is directly funded by the individual ratepayers of a single regulated entity, and that same law made it possible for Great Basin to force Los Angeles ratepayers to pay 100% of Great Basin’s attorney fees regardless of the outcome of the case.

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