USA News

Jury says Corona Clay Company repeatedly violated Clean Water Act

After a five-year legal battle, a jury has sided with environmental groups who sued a clay production company in Corona over claims that the business repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act by letting iron-heavy soil and other sediment flow into Temescal Creek. The creek feeds into the Santa Ana River, which eventually reaches the Pacific Ocean in Huntington Beach.

Family-owned Corona Clay Company is now facing civil penalties that could run to multi-millions of dollars. A judge is expected to set the exact amount early next year.

The decision marks a rare trial victory for a citizen-filed lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, which lets Americans sue anyone believed to be discharging pollutants into U.S. waters. The landmark legislation marked its 50th anniversary this year, and Garry Brown, founder of Inland Empire Waterkeeper — which, together with its parent organization, Orange County Coastkeeper, sued Corona Clay Company in 2018 — said he couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than by “holding polluters responsible.”

“The trial’s strong verdict sends a message to industrial facilities to clean up their operations and prioritize environmental health,” Brown said.

Craig Deleo, CEO of Corona Clay Company, chalks the loss up to a flawed legal defense. And Deleo insists his company, which his parents started in 1958, now has effective storm water capture channels in place to prevent the problem from recurring.

Corona Clay Company specializes in selling landscape materials used in baseball fields, running tracks, tennis courts and motocross tracks, among other things. The company’s claim to fame is creating “Angel Mix,” so named because it was the first material used to cover the infield at Angels Stadium when it opened in 1966. It also supplies clay for the mud baths at nearby Glen Ivy Hot Springs.

Through the 1990s, the company made its materials by pulling naturally occurring clay from the land. The company didn’t have a mining permit for that work — something Deleo said he was initially told was unnecessary because his company was “land leveling,” not mining. The company eventually reached a settlement with Riverside County over the issue and no longer pulls clay from the land. Now, Deleo said, they haul in bricks and grind them up with dirt to make their clay landscape materials.

Sarah Spinuzzi, senior staff attorney with Orange County Coastkeeper, pointed to the mining permit conflict as evidence that Corona Clay has a history of problematic operations.

“They seem to have a philosophical problem with regulations,” she said.

The company, which employs 12 people, is far from the biggest polluter in the area, Spinuzzi acknowledged. And there certainly are companies putting far worse pollutants, such as chemicals, into the area’s waterways, she said.

But with piles of clay and other loose material throughout the site that are high in heavy metals, such as iron, Spinuzzi said those materials can easily run off whenever it rains and make their way down to the creek that’s roughly 1,000 feet from the industrial site. Clay then settles into the creek bed, where it can suffocate microorganisms and harm fish that forage for food in what should be a sandy bottom.

Coastkeeper notified the company about these problems in 2017, Spinuzzi said. The organization also pointed out the company’s repeated failures to properly test storm water samples for pollutants, something that their permit required.

Asked about that missing data, Deleo said they hired a consultant and didn’t realize they weren’t always testing for the right things at the right times.

“That stuff is on us for not getting it done,” he said.

“We don’t contend that was done perfectly,” he added. “But it’s not an easy system to do.”

As far as containing runoff at that time, Deleo said, “We didn’t have a good system and I’m the first to admit we didn’t have it.” But once they experimented and learned what worked, he said they got a system in place. And Deleo insists no runoff has left his property since 2019, including when the area was hit by heavy rains in December 2021.

The fact that the conflict landed in court is a rarity. Spinuzzi said most of the time, when Coastkeeper or some other environmental group notifies a company about a Water Act violation, the company agrees to fix the problem and pay a fine, typically in the $100,000 range. Those fines are then donated to a local nonprofit. But Corona Clay declined to settle.

Deleo insists he truly didn’t believe his company was in violation of the Clean Water Act, which he believed was focused on preventing substances such as oil and chemicals from getting into waterways. And he said he still isn’t convinced that runoff from his property ends up in Temescal Creek. So he declined to settle, which is how this case became one of only a handful of Clean Water Act citizen suits to ever go to a jury trial.

During the first go-round in federal Central District Court of California, Judge David Carter found in favor of Coastkeeper on several of its claims. Fines for those claims totaled $3.2 million, Spinuzzi said. However, the jury at that time sided with Corona Clay Company on the remaining claims. But both parties appealed the decision, which sent the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The appeals court vacated the earlier ruling, which sent it back to Carter, who placed the entire case back before a jury. This time, the jury sided with the environmental groups after an eight-day trial that ended Nov. 21.

The jury found Corona Clay Company liable for thousands of days of violations, with multiple violations each day, with each violation carrying a penalty of up to $25,000 plus inflation. Spinuzzi said the maximum penalty could reach $600 million.

They don’t expect the penalty to be anywhere near that ceiling. The only time the maximum penalty has been applied in a Clean Water Act case was for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But Spinuzzi said she expects Corona Clay penalties to be in the millions.

If that happens, Deleo says he’ll likely have to pull money from a retirement fund he set up for employees. The company also could sell land, since they own some 400 acres around their project site. His family bought it years ago in hopes of mining sand, but he said county environmental laws blocked those operations.

“However long it takes, we’ll come up with it,” Deleo said. “We’re not going to declare bankruptcy or anything.”

Still, Deleo also said he doesn’t expect his business to be around for long. Most of his employees are 50 or older, and he plans to close up shop once they’re all ready to retire.

While the jury decision was of course a welcome one for the environmental groups, Spinuzzi said this is far from their ideal outcome. They’d prefer that companies don’t violate environmental laws at all. And if they do, she said, they prefer to settle those cases so that money can go directly to local nonprofits. With civil penalties like the ones Corona Clay is now facing, that money simply goes to the U.S. Treasury.

She hopes the penalty at least will be large enough to send a clear message to other companies that might be engaging in similar behaviors.

“If it’s cheaper to violate the law they will do so,” she said, referring to companies in general, not just Corona Clay.

“We just want to make it cheaper for them to do the right thing.”

File source

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button