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Duarte Pins Hopes for End to Case on the PUC

August 23, 1987|SUE AVERY | Times Staff Writer

DUARTE — City officials hope they have found their Perry Mason to solve the case of the pinhole leaks.

They also want their sleuth, in this case the state Public Utilities Commission, to act as judge and jury.

City Manager Jesse Duff said the city will ask the PUC to hold a hearing at which, they hope, the commissioners will determine that using water from the San Gabriel River, rather than corrosive well water, will solve the problem.

If the PUC agrees, the city wants the commission to allow the local water company to build a $2.5-million filtration plant that would draw the water out of the river and treat it.

The PUC is being asked to hold the hearing because it has regulatory power over the California-American Water Co. and can order it to provide a better quality of water, Duff said.

Rejected Before

California-American has admitted no liability for problems with well water but agrees that the filtration plant would enable it to use river water and solve the problems. However, the PUC two years ago rejected the firm's request to build the plant and raise water rates to pay for it.

More than 1,000 homes built in the late 1970s and early 1980s have been damaged by water leaking through tiny holes in copper water pipes, city officials say. Some homeowners have had problems with the same pipes more than once.

The pinhole leaks are caused by the interaction of chemicals in the well water with the copper pipes, said Bryan Hinzie, a corrosion engineer with the Metropolitan Water District. Hinzie, who lives in Duarte, has offered to help the city and the irate homeowners.

Similar problems have occurred in dozens of cities throughout the country, including Garden Grove, Anaheim, Santa Fe Springs, Gardena, Dana Point, Cerritos and Tucson, Ariz., leading some engineers to draw the same conclusions as Hinzie.

Chemical Makeup

They also agree that the best solution is to change the chemical makeup of the water.

In a speech at a 1985 seminar of the American Water Works Assn. in Los Angeles, M. J. Schiff, a Claremont corrosion engineer, said: "One problem from the water purveyors' viewpoint is that water treatment may be the only practical way to stop the corrosion of an existing pipe system even though the water may not have initiated the failures."

PUC and water company officials were present when nearly 200 irate homeowners demanded a solution to their problems at a town meeting Aug. 5 sponsored by the city and Citizens United for Safe and Non-Corrosive Drinking Water, a homeowners group.

"I have had eight leaks that cost me $10,000," one resident complained. "I am at my wits' end, and I am about to sue the city, the water company and the PUC. The city can't sit on its tail and say it is not legally responsible."

But the city has no authority over the water company, Duff said. "This is a private water company regulated by the state. It (the company) owns the delivery system and the water rights. It is not a city operation."

Formal Complaint

The city will ask for the hearing in a formal complaint to be filed with the PUC. No date has been set.

Natalie Hanson, who works for the PUC in helping the public lodge complaints against utilities, said it will be up to Duarte to prove that the best way to solve the problem is to change the chemical makeup of the water, either by additional treatment of well water or by switching to San Gabriel River water.

Both the city and California-American want to stop using well water because of concerns about pollution. That is why the city is backing California-American's request to build the filtration plant.

San Gabriel River water does not have the chemical imbalance that has helped cause the corrosion, water experts say.

In 1985 the PUC turned down the company's request to raise water rates 74% over three years to pay for a filtration plant, saying California-American had not proved that the plant was the most economical solution.

This time, Duff said, the city is willing to issue tax-exempt bonds to help pay for the plant, which would ease the burden on customers. If California-American gets permission by early next year, the plant could be operating as early as the end of 1989, said company district manager Andrew Krueger.

In the meantime, California-American is testing another potential solution: caustic soda.

Six-Month Test

The soda will be injected into well water used in 200 to 400 homes in Duarte to determine if that will solve the problem. The test, which will take at least six months, will cost $30,000.

A study to find other economically feasible solutions will be conducted by an independent engineering company acceptable to both the citizens group and the city, which will pay the estimated $10,000 cost. The homeowners will make a recommendation Monday on which company should conduct the study, expected to take two or three months.

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