The question is whether municipal 'opt-out' programs compromise the EPA's Clean Water Act. The cities of Oakland and Berkeley, California, have adopted street cleaning programs which would seem to have a contradictory component given the EPA Clean Water Act's stormwater mandate: In some areas of these cities, citizens have been allowed to 'opt-out' of having their streets cleaned.
Given the EPA's Clean Water Act mandate, concerns have surfaced that these streets might not actually be getting cleaned. Our article information gathering found a fairly widespread perception that residents are doing nothing, or at best are just picking up the large debris. It seems questionable whether the 'fines' (as defined by the EPA), which studies have shown hold the largest concentrations of heavy metals and other problem particulates, are not being removed except via stormwater runoff.
According to Al Lenzini, Deputy Director of Public Works and manager of Oakland's street sweeping program, about 200 of that city's 3,846 total streets are currently, in theory, being swept by residents. Oakland's opt-out program was first started in 1987, when a group of residents fought against scheduled street sweeping, primarily because of the city's newly instituted program requiring car removal on sweeping days. As an alternative, these residents said that they would keep the streets clean themselves.
In response, Oakland enacted a policy stating that if 80% of the people living on a given street would sign a petition agreeing to keep their street clean themselves, then sweeping - and the controlled parking that goes with it - would be halted. Residents of about 100 streets mounted successful petition drives, and their streets have not been visited by a mechanical sweeper since then. An additional 100 streets have been added to the list under a more recent, slightly modified program last year.
Berkeley resident L.A. Wood is an activist on the topic of stormwater runoff, and an outspoken critic of the Oakland and Berkeley opt-out programs. "Street sweeping has been practiced in this area since the horse and carriage days, but it is no longer just litter control," says Wood. "Today's street-borne pollutants include some of the metals and petroleum by-products associated with vehicles and road surface sediments.
Berkeley's Storm Drain: Portal to the Bay. (1992) 8:30 TRT Produced by Erbele/Wood
..on the impact of the City of Berkeley Public Works street sweeper operations on storm drains, urban runoff pollution and the San Francisco Bay. This nine-minute video includes a community tour of the city's Corporation yard, Public Works operations, and related surface water - urban runoff concerns.
"In 1987, Oakland's street sweeping program was theoretically updated to include the removal of toxic pollutants that collect on city streets. This failure by Oakland and Berkeley to sweep all of their accessible residential streets, however, is challenging the integrity of the entire county's stormwater runoff program. It also contributes significantly, and unnecessarily, to the pollution stream entering San Francisco bay. There has been no review since the Clean Water Act became law. No municipalities with the urban densities of Oakland and Berkeley should have an 'opt-out' program. The majority of opt-out streets also seem to be clustered in the more affluent sections of these towns. These aren't residents who are excited about keeping their streets clean. They are, rather, people who don't want to worry about getting tickets for not moving their cars. Because of opt-out, Berkeley actually is sweeping fewer streets now than in past years. How can this be progress?"
"I would like to sweep every street in Berkeley," responds Vicki Elmer, Public Works Manager for Berkeley. "Although we both have opt-out streets, Oakland and Berkeley are also the only two cities in Alameda County with mandatory sweeping days, and enforced parking programs. The other cities in our county sweep around their parked cars. So, in some ways, we are really hard-nosed with our street sweeping programs.
"Also, we have streets in the hills without curbs and gutters, and can't sweep there. That's a problem we don't know what to do about, because we are really quite concerned with the urban runoff, and heavy metals going into the bay. We're committed to doing what we can, environmentally, to make our bay safe."
Are measurements taken to determine whether or not the streets that have been opted-out are actually being swept? "In our streets," said Lenzini, "we are looking at the amount of visible litter and debris. No, we have not pulled any streets off the program. Those particular streets that have petitioned know that they have the requirement of keeping their streets clean. They can go out with their brooms on Saturday mornings, or whenever they are off, and sweep the
areas and get them clean."
Responds Wood, "Today sweeping is recognized by the EPA as a Best Management Practice (BMP) in developing a strategy to control non-point source pollution. How can you measure the effectiveness of street sweeping if you don't do a complete sweep of the city? Both Oakland and Berkeley will tell you that they can't sweep hills, but both, in fact, sweep select areas of their hills.
"It is the simple idea that urban city streets contain more than just litter that has helped to shape our federal runoff program. For a street to just look clean is no longer enough. To be truly effective, monitoring now must be directed at numerical water quality standards, not a drive-by appraisal.
"Only a program of measurement can provide an understanding of the source of runoff pollutants, their varied content, and the value of our designated clean water activities such as street cleaning. Even if a city resists implementation of numerical effluent limits, however, in favor of the BMP approach as a means of monitoring and controlling urban runoff, there is no
place for an opt-out program. There is no BMP that can withstand scrutiny unless all accessible urban roadways are being swept."
Berkeley recently stopped allowing new opt-out streets to enter the program, although previously opted-out streets are unaffected. In the city of Oakland the opt-out program is still ongoing.