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State Accused of Delaying Water Cleanup : Solution No Closer Than It Was 5 Years Ago, Assemblywoman Says

May 09, 1985|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), who heads the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, has accused the state Department of Health Services of delaying the cleanup of ground water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley.

"I can't tell you the confusion and the buck-passing that's going on," Tanner said. "We seem to be going nowhere."

Tanner, who successfully fought to get ground water contamination on both the state and federal superfund lists, said cleanup is no closer now than it was five years ago when the problem was discovered. Sixty of the 400 wells that supply water to a million people in the San Gabriel Valley are so contaminated by industrial chemicals that the wells must be shut down or the water must be treated or blended to meet state health standards, according to state officials.

The compounds that have been found include trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE) and carbon tetrachloride (CTC). The amounts detected are small--measured in parts per billion--but health officials worry that these chemicals in the drinking water even at extremely low levels could produce cancer risks.

'Large-Scale Problem'

"I recognize that this a complex and large-scale problem," Tanner said, "but I believe that given the five years that state and federal agencies have had to grapple with it, we ought to be looking at solutions by now. Unfortunately, these agencies are still trying to define the extent of the problem."

Tanner said long-term studies are important, but there should be a way to clean up those wells where a problem is already established. "We've got to do something at the tap immediately so that the water can be used," she said.

Joel Moskowitz, the deputy director in charge of the toxics program for the state Department of Health Services, said the state is using a sensible approach to the "Herculean task" of dealing with ground water contamination.

Moskowitz said the easiest way to purify water is an aeration system that simply transfers the contaminants into the air. Some San Gabriel Valley water agencies have begun aerating water, but Moskowitz said he is concerned that such systems on a large scale would just trade water pollution for air pollution. So, he said, there is good reason to approach the whole problem cautiously.

Cleanup Delay Seen

Tanner said the state's recent decision to withdraw as the lead agency on a study of ground water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley is likely to delay cleanup. But Moskowitz insisted that the state is taking the wisest course and its decision will "do nothing but speed up the project."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency last year announced that it was giving the state $1.7 million to investigate ground water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley.

Now, the state has advised the agency that it does not want the grant and that the EPA should instead contract with the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, an organization of water producers, to direct the study. The federal agency is negotiating with the district.

Tanner said that the state is shirking its responsibility by withdrawing from the study and that she will ask the health department to reconsider its decision. If the health department does not reconsider, she said, she will appeal to Gov. George Deukmejian.

Eliminating Middleman

But Rich Wilcoxon, chief of the state's toxic substances control division, said that even if the state had remained as the lead agency, the state planned to contract with the water district for the study. By eliminating the state as middleman, the Environmental Protection Agency can contract directly with the water district, saving time and money, he said.

Moskowitz said the state will continue to shut down wells in the San Gabriel Valley as contaminants are found and plans to maintain an "oversight" role in the ground water cleanup program. But other officials said uncertainty about the state's role is delaying completion of a contract between the EPA and the water district.

The proposed study would determine the extent of ground water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley and recommend steps to remove or isolate the contaminants. It has been estimated that the study would take one to three years.

Moskowitz said that removing contaminants from the ground water basin is "like trying to unscramble eggs" and there are "respectable people" who are arguing that cleanup is impractical and efforts should instead focus on purifying water just before it is delivered to customers instead of trying to clean up the whole basin. Moskowitz added that this is not his view, however, and he believes every effort should be made to explore the cleanup possibilities.

Tanks May Have Leaked

Some of the industrial solvents being found in the ground water may have leaked from underground storage tanks and a program is now under way to inspect tanks and clean up leaks. But Tanner said that program, too, is moving slowly.

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