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'Comedy of Errors' Over, Water Cleanup Begins, Officials Say

December 08, 1985|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

ROSEMEAD — State and federal officials have conceded that work to clean up contaminated ground water in the San Gabriel Valley has moved forward too slowly, admitted that there have been bureaucratic delays and said the problem is much more complex than they had originally expected.

But the officials also said the ground water problem is much more complex than they had originally expected it to be.

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), who conducted a hearing Thursday in Rosemead as chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, noted that trichloroethylene (TCE) was first reported in a San Gabriel Valley water well in 1979 and, since then, 60 wells have become so contaminated that the water cannot be used without treatment.

Little Progress Made

Little progress has been made in the past six years, Tanner said. "The water is still not clean, and we haven't taken care of the problem," she said.

She complained that the state Department of Health Services had started to lead the cleanup effort, but did little, then handed the job back to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a series of events she described as a "comedy of errors." She asked Keith Takata, regional chief of the EPA's Superfund programs, if that was not an accurate account.

"You've just covered most of what I was going to say, though not in those words," Takata replied.

Mark Leary, project engineer with the state Department of Health Services, said both his department and the EPA "deserve to eat a little humble pie for the situation in the San Gabriel Valley."

Takata said the contamination is "much more complicated and widespread" but not necessarily a more serious health problem than the better-known toxic cleanup problem at the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County.

Industrial Solvents

Takata said industrial cleaning solvents have contaminated ground water in 40 of the 170 square miles of the main San Gabriel basin, which is the primary source of water for 1 million people.

However, Takata and Leary said the cleanup program is getting under way. The state health department and the EPA have nearly completed the sampling of water wells in the San Gabriel Valley, which they said will help investigators determine the scope of the area's contamination.

Takata said the EPA is designing water treatment systems for two El Monte water companies with contaminated wells and construction could be completed by November, 1986.

In January, he said, the EPA will begin focusing on specific areas where there is either an immediate health hazard or action is needed to keep the contamination from spreading.

Takata said organizing a cleanup effort has been complicated by the fact that 46 water agencies serve the San Gabriel Valley. In the San Fernando Valley, where wells also have been invaded by organic compounds, the cleanup effort has moved faster, he said, because there are only six water producers and it is easier to coordinate their work.

The San Gabriel Valley problem also is more severe than the San Fernando Valley's, he said, because the contamination has gone much deeper in the ground. A well drilled recently by the San Gabriel Valley Water Co. in the City of Industry found water to be just as badly contaminated at 700 feet below the surface as it was at 300 feet.

Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the regional Water Quality Control Board, told the committee that industrial tanks storing chemicals are a major source of the ground water contamination. He said his office has found leaking tanks at 15 businesses in the San Gabriel Valley, and in four cases, involving plants in Azusa, City of Industy and Pomona, the leaks have reached the ground water.

Ghirelli noted that the effort to detect leaks in underground storage tanks is just getting under way and what has been found so far represents no more than the tip of the iceberg. Because of staffing limitations, he said, it may take a decade or more to clean up the soil and ground water.

Contaminated Plumes

He recommended that instead of closing wells, water producers build treatment systems to remove contaminants from water. Closing wells is not the answer, he said, because that just allows the contaminated plumes of water to move and spread.

Robert Nicholson, president of San Gabriel Valley Water Co., said the technology is available to remove all organic compounds from the water through treatment systems--but at enormous cost.

His company is attempting to meet state standards, he said, but "it's not reasonable to get everything out." Nicholson said the state requires water producers to notify customers of a contamination problem whenever there is even the slightest health risk, a risk he compared to smoking just three cigarettes in a lifetime.

Takata said pumping out and treating water are not the long-term answer to the contamination problem. "You couldn't possibly pull up all the ground water and treat it," he said.

But, he said, treatment systems are needed as part of a short-term solution, pumping out contaminated water to keep the pollution from spreading to other wells. Meanwhile, he said, efforts should go forward to find contamination sources.

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