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3 Downey Wells Shut for Contamination; Council Not Told

August 06, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — Three wells that provided drinking water for city residents have been closed for months because of contamination from an industrial solvent suspected to cause cancer, but the shutdowns were never announced to the City Council or to the public.

The city Public Works Department closed one of the wells in March and the other two in April after state and independent tests revealed excessive amounts of the dry-cleaning solvent tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, officials said.

Tim Gannon, a state Department of Health Services spokesman, startled local and state officials when he revealed the closures last Friday during a forum on water quality at Cerritos College. The forum was sponsored by Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk).

Concerns Expressed

Downey City Councilman Robert G. Cormack, who was a forum panelist, said he was aware that some wells had been closed for maintenance but that he did not know wells had been closed down because of PCE contamination.

"It bothered me a little bit that I didn't know the specific reasons" the wells were closed, Cormack said in an interview this week. "I've been told we will be kept abreast now as it happens."

Two other council members, Roy L. Paul and Diane P. Boggs, said they were concerned that they had not been notified of the closures.

"I really believe if there's something that poses a danger to us, that we should know about it," said Paul, who described himself as an "avid" drinker of tap water. "I'm frightened by the aspect that I didn't know."

Councilman Randall R. Barb, however, said the closures were "routine," that Public Works Director William A. Ralph acted properly in closing the wells and that it was not necessary for the council to be informed. "If it were a dangerous situation I would want to be notified," Barb said.

Councilman James S. Santangelo was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Health Risk Called Minute

The levels of contamination found in the Downey wells pose a minute health risk, officials said.

The state requires a water agency to take action when PCE levels in water reach 4 parts per billion. Tests of the three wells this year detected peak PCE levels ranging from 6.7 parts per billion to 13 parts per billion, Ralph said.

If a person were to drink daily two liters of water containing 4 parts per billion of PCE, the increased chance that person would develop cancer would be less than 1 in 1 million, said David P. Spath, senior sanitary engineer for the state health department.

Ralph said he told the City Council in February that chemical contamination was detected in several city wells, but at the time, only one well had reached actionable levels. That well was closed after further testing confirmed the level of contamination, he said.

It was not necessary to inform the City Council or make a public statement that may have generated "unfounded concern" because the wells were closed and therefore posed no danger to the public, Ralph said.

Legislation Considered

He said municipal water system records, which would have revealed the closures, are open for public inspection.

"Once you've turned the water off it's (potential danger is) no longer there," he said. "If I were to leave it on or blend it (with uncontaminated water to reduce the PCE concentration), then I would want to tell the people."

Grisham's field representative, Randy Economy, said the assemblyman is considering legislation that would require the state health department to notify local officials when a well is closed because of contamination.

"It really did catch (Grisham) off guard," Economy said.

Well No. 19, on Dolan Avenue south of Firestone Boulevard, was closed March 23. Testing by state and independent laboratories during the first six months of this year revealed PCE levels ranging from 1.8 parts per billion to 7.2 parts per billion, Ralph said.

No One Source Identified

Well No. 20 was closed April 15 after tests showed PCE contamination ranging from 8.7 parts per billion to 13 parts per billion. Well 20 is on Adwen Street, west of Old River School Road. Well No. 17 was closed April 17. Testing showed PCE at levels ranging from 1.6 parts per billion to 6.7 parts per billion, Ralph said. The well is on Pellet Street west of Old River School Road.

The contamination has not been linked to any one industrial source, officials said. Downey draws its water from the central basin, a huge underground body of water that also supplies South Gate, Montebello, La Mirada and other southeast cities.

"It's difficult to say where one particular pocket of material (contamination) came from," said Thomas S. Salzano, field secretary for the Central Basin Water Assn. "It's something that we're trying to look at, but it's difficult to pin down."

Under a state law that went into effect in 1985, the city and other water utilities are required to test periodically for 48 organic chemicals commonly used in industry.

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