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Governor Draws Fire for Veto on Tank Study

October 06, 1985|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

Gov. George Deukmejian has vetoed legislation that would have provided an additional $400,000 to find out if underground storage tanks are contaminating water wells in the San Gabriel Valley.

The veto came last week about the same time that 15,000 residents of Hacienda Heights were being notified that they should use bottled rather than tap water for drinking and cooking because of contamination from dichloroethylene (DCE), a compound used in plastics and as an industrial solvent, which is a suspected carcinogen.

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) said underground tanks are an obvious source of the contamination that is affecting wells throughout the San Gabriel Valley.

"The state isn't doing a damn thing about finding the source of contamination," she said.

Tanner's amendment to a toxic cleanup bill would have appropriated $3.6 million statewide, including $400,000 for the San Gabriel Valley, to accelerate regulation and inspection of underground storage tanks.

Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency which would have received the additional funding, said his budget permits him to hire only eight people for the underground tank program in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. There are 40,000 tanks in Los Angeles County alone, he said, and although the county Public Works Department handles most of the work involved in issuing permits for tanks, any major leaks are referred to the state for inspection and cleanup. Currently, he said, his office has a backlog of 300 cases.

In his veto message, Deukmejian said increased funding for the tank program would transfer a local government responsibility to the state's water board. That would be a major policy shift, he said, and the matter should be deferred. Deukmejian said his staff is "working with the Legislature and other interested parties to resolve the oversight concerns and, therefore, I believe it would be premature to provide an appropriation to the board in this area."

The governor voiced the same concern when he vetoed a similar appropriation in July.

Deukmejian's latest veto left intact a portion of the same bill that appropriates $1.4 million to provide treatment systems to remove contaminants from water wells owned by three small El Monte water companies, Richwood, Rurban Homes and Hemlock Mutual.

The state in 1980 ordered the companies to advise their customers to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking because high levels of industrial cleaning solvents were found in their wells. In July, the state ordered Richwood to stop using its wells entirely and connect its lines to another water company because the contaminant levels had risen.

The federal government also has agreed to help the El Monte water companies financially, and the state appropriation will supplement the federal expenditure for treatment plants. The state also will pay to maintain the systems, a cost estimated at $2 million over 20 years.

Tanner cited the veto of her underground tank legislation as an example of state inaction on water contamination at a legislative hearing called last week at Industry City Hall to look into the water problem in Hacienda Heights. Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) convened the meeting and was joined by Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena), Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) and Tanner in hearing testimony from state and local water officials.

Campbell and the other legislators at the hearing signed a letter asking Deukmejian to pay for bottled water for the Hacienda Heights residents affected by the contamination notice. The cost was estimated at $150,000 a month, which would be paid out of funds allocated for state water emergencies.

Gary Yamamoto, a senior sanitary engineer with the state health department, told legislators that 60 to 70 of the 220 wells that supply water to about 1 million people in the valley are so contaminated that the wells have been shut down or their water is being treated or blended to meet state health requirements.

Campbell said Yamamoto's testimony shows that one-fourth of the area's wells are contaminated and that means the San Gabriel Valley is facing a "water crisis." Although authorities have long been aware of the contamination, Campbell said the fact that residents of Hacienda Heights have been forced to buy bottled water has focused attention on the problem and may elicit action.

Yamamoto told legislators that the Hacienda Heights contamination was discovered this year under a new state program that requires testing for many new compounds, including DCE. He said test results as early as March indicated that DCE had invaded wells of San Gabriel Valley Water Co., which serves part of Hacienda Heights. But there were some inconsistencies in results and for a time the problem seemed to have subsided, he said.

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