River Watch group files lawsuit

August 01, 2001 12:00 am

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

A watchdog group is suing Crescent City over what it claims are thousands of environmental violations and an unresponsiveness from the city.

Lynn Hamilton, executive director of River Watch in Santa Rosa, said the group filed the suit in San Francisco Federal Court on Monday, partly because communication with city officials broke down.

According to city records, River Watch sent a state-required 60-day notice of its intent to file suit on April 3 for violations occurring at the citys water treatment plant from 1996 to 2000. Since that time, the city had been working with the group in an attempt to head off the suit.

Im not sure how many times we tried to make contact, Hamilton said. But it was definite from our end, and there was no response from the city attorney.

City Attorney Dohn Henion said Hamilton is not correct and provided documentation showing a deteriorating dialogue between Henion and River Watch attorney Jack Silver.

Wed been talking back and forth about under what circumstances would we need for them not to sue us, Henion said. They said they wanted us to waive our rights to extra defenses, and we werent about to waive any rights.

Henion said the negotiations ran aground over what the city perceived as an extortion attempt by the group.

The Clean Water Act was enacted to allow citizens to retrieve penalties of violations, Henion said. It was not intended to line the pockets of environmental groups. What they are essentially saying is, We are going to sue you unless you buy us off.

In a letter dated July 10, Silver requested Henion add a paragraph to an agreement between the group and the city that if a lawsuit is launched by River Watch, the city will acknowledge continuing violations and waive its right to certain legal defenses.

On July 16, Henion replied and refused to adopt that paragraph, because it would leave the city legally undefended and it only protected Silvers legal fees.

Silver replied on July 18, saying Henions reply was unacceptable, and that his litigious rhetoric has created a hostile atmosphere.

Henion said his communications with Silver were always professional and the hostility was one-sided. Henion also said he was surprised that Hamilton felt the city was unresponsive.

I think we responded to all of their communications, Henion said. It was Jack Silver that never responded to my last letter.

Silver did not return messages left at his office yesterday.

Another problem with River Watchs claims, according to Henion, is the group never listed specific violations with the city.

Tom Dunbar, the senior water resources control engineer with the Regional Water Quality Control Board, North Coast Region, said the numbers of violations River Watch has claimed in past lawsuits did not match his numbers.

There was a very lengthy process the group had with the city of Fortuna, Dunbar said. Our numbers (in that case) were nothing like River Watchs. Our numbers were miles apart.

Dunbar said the list River Watch sent to his agency was also generalized and he could not identify any specific violations.

Hamilton said she did not have a list available yesterday, but said the city had at least 1,350 violations of solid matter and over 1,000 of contaminated water.