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10 Azusa Wells Among Targets of Water Inquiry

February 10, 1985|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

A contractor hired by the Environmental Protection Agency to help find the source of water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley has advised the EPA to focus on Aerojet Electrosystems Co. in Azusa.

CH2M Hill Inc., a consulting firm that is overseeing the EPA's $300,000 water testing program in the San Gabriel Valley, has recommended that 10 wells near the Aerojet plant at 1100 W. Hollyvale St. be tested for trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), carbon tetrachloride (CTC) and other volatile organic compounds that are suspected of causing cancer. TCE, PCE and CTC have all been found in the area's ground water.

The work plan prepared by CH2M Hill for the EPA says, "There is data that suggests that Aerojet Electrosystems is a potential source of various volatile halocarbons and other contaminants that have reached the ground water. Historically, Aerojet has used special compounds in the course of its work activities. Many of these chemical compounds are reportedly not used by the other industrial firms in the area."

Enforcement Action Hinted

The plan recommends that laboratories process water samples from wells near Aerojet quickly "because the data collected may be used for enforcement action."

Floyd Brown, a spokesman for Aerojet, said TCE and related degreasing compounds have been used so widely in industrial processes that Aerojet officials cannot understand why their plant is being singled out. He said Aerojet has asked the EPA to share information gathered from other companies on their use of chemical compounds. The EPA has asked about 100 San Gabriel Valley industrial plants to supply detailed information about past and present manufacturing processes and about how they have handled chemicals and waste.

William Winter, who heads CH2M Hill's environmental and engineering systems office for Southern California, said he could not explain specifically why Aerojet is being targeted, but the testing program was devised after an analysis of information the company filed with the EPA and other government agencies. Winter said testing will begin as soon as the EPA approves the work plan.

Both the EPA and the state Department of Health Services are trying to find out how much of the area's ground water is contaminated and what remedies should be undertaken.

The ground water contamination was discovered by Aerojet technicians in 1979 when they found a large amount of TCE in an Irwindale well.

Parent Company Under Fire

The discovery came while Aerojet Electrosystems' parent company, Aerojet-General Corp., was under fire for TCE contamination of soil and ground water at its plant at Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento. State and federal agencies are currently negotiating with the company over a cleanup program.

Brown said Aerojet Electrosystems, which employs 2,000 workers to design and build sensor systems, does not handle chemicals in volume.

The Azusa property was a testing ground for rocket motors in the 1940s and was Aerojet-General's principal production facility until the Rancho Cordova plant was opened in 1950. The Azusa plant became Aerojet Electrosystems in 1967.

While the proposed EPA testing program is focusing on Aerojet's Azusa plant, both state and federal authorities have said they believe there is more than one source of contamination.

Since 1979, TCE and related compounds have been found in significant amounts in nearly 60 of the 400 water wells in the main San Gabriel basin, which covers nearly 200 square miles from Alhambra east to La Verne and serves nearly 1 million people. Preliminary studies have identified four contaminated areas, in Alhambra, Baldwin Park, El Monte and La Puente.

All contaminated wells have been closed except those belonging to three water companies in El Monte. The 700 customers of the water companies have been advised to drink bottled water until water treatment systems are installed.

The EPA tests will supplement a state testing program that is already under way. Under a new state law, water samples drawn from 124 San Gabriel Valley wells are being analyzed for pesticides and volatile organic compounds.

The state tests will enable authorities to assess the extent of ground water contamination. The EPA's tests will supplement that effort by focusing on specific problems.

CH2M Hill has recommended that the state and federal projects sample 20 of the same wells to cross-check results. The federal program would sample 43 additional wells, including 10 near Aerojet.

The state testing program, which began last month, is to be completed in 90 days. The federal plan allots two months for gathering samples from wells, and nine months for completing an assessment.

The federal and state test results will be used as a guide for a larger state and federal study that will determine what should be done about the ground water contamination. That study has not yet begun and may take as long as three years.

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