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California Prison Fined $1.7 Million for Stormwater Discharges, Environmental Violations

On August 1, 2023, the federal court for the Eastern District of California approved a $1.7 million payment to settle lawsuits accusing the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) of fouling the environment around Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) with polluted stormwater discharges.

As part of the Prison Ecology Project of its publisher, the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN has reported extensively on environmental violations by prisons and jails, including sewage and stormwater discharges; the latter is particularly problematic where stormwater carries pollutants from roads and irrigation ditches into local watersheds. In California, CDCR has been repeatedly cited for such pollutant spills over the past two decades. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.l.]

The latest settlement resolves two suits, the first filed in December 2020 by the nonprofit California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), accusing CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Macomber and MCSP warden Patrick Covello of violating the federal Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1365(a), by polluting the Mule Creek waterway with dirty stormwater discharges. Amador County officials filed a similar lawsuit the following month.

The two cases, which sought injunctive and declaratory relief, were consolidated, and the Court then partially granted the parties’ motions for summary judgment on January 11, 2023. See: Cal. Sportfishing Prot. All. v. Allison, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5045 (E.D. Cal.). A consent decree was reached four months later that the Court ultimately approved. As part of the settlement, CDCR was required to implement a stormwater pollution prevention plan and provide related employee training by October 2023.

Repairs to the prison’s wastewater system were also ordered, and they must be completed by July 2030, when the consent decree expires. The repairs had been recommended following a CDCR investigation into stormwater discharges ordered by the Regional Water Board in 2018. While CDCR denied liability, it agreed to pay $1.7 million to reimburse Plaintiffs’ expenses, including costs, consultants, expert witnesses and attorney fees. Of that amount, $880,000 was payable to CSPA and $820,000 to Amador County.

Additionally, CDCR will perform “nest control” to “reduce impacts of birds on water quality”; identify and protect storm drains; and conduct inspections, monitoring, sampling and reporting of stormwater discharges. Plaintiffs will be allowed to perform annual inspections while the consent decree is in effect, and CDCR must provide yearly reports on its compliance with the settlement terms and pay an annual monitoring fee ranging from $17,500 to $30,000. See: Cal. Sportfishing Prot. All. v. Macomber, USDC (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:20-cv-02482.

The $1. 7 million payout was only the latest by CDCR for environmental violations, including, a $2.3 million penalty assessed in 2017 for wastewater discharges at the Deuel Vocational Institution. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.40.]  

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Related legal case

Cal. Sportfishing Prot. All. v. Macomber