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Huge Costs, Decades of Work Seen in Job of Purifying Water

February 18, 1988|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

Purifying contaminated ground water in the San Gabriel Valley will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require decades of work, preliminary estimates by the federal Environmental Protection Agency indicate.

Paula Bisson, section chief at the regional EPA office in San Francisco, said the cost is so high that it is not clear how the project can be financed, even though the contamination problem is on both the federal and state Superfund cleanup lists.

About 70 of the 400 wells in the main San Gabriel basin are contaminated with industrial solvents, such as trichloroethylene. The 46 private companies and public agencies that pump water from the basin, serving nearly 1 million customers, have closed the contaminated wells or are blending the water with other supplies to meet state and federal requirements.

Effect on Consumers

San Gabriel Valley residents are not in danger of receiving unsafe water, but they may face higher water rates because of the ground water contamination, said Robert Berlien, manager of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District. As more ground water becomes contaminated, he said, utilities will have to turn to more expensive imported water or build costly treatment systems.

Neil Ziemba, who directs the EPA project in the San Gabriel Valley, told a meeting of water producers that after years of study, complete cleanup of the basin seems beyond reach.

It would take up to $51 million and seven to 10 years to devise a full cleanup plan and another $217 million to $800 million to carry out the work, an EPA study said.

"In any kind of time frame that we could contemplate, say 50 years or so, you are not going to clean up the basin to the point where you are going to operate wells without having to treat (the water)," Ziemba said. The most that could be hoped for, he said, is to keep the contamination from spreading.

Questions Remain

EPA officials have not said how much they would be willing to spend or what steps they will take if funds to pay for the cleanup cannot be raised.

The EPA has identified four major plumes of contaminated water underlying parts of Alhambra, El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, Azusa, the City of Industry and Irwindale and also has found contaminants in the Whittier Narrows area. The Whittier Narrows contamination is especially worrisome, Ziemba said, because ground water from the San Gabriel Valley flows through there to other water basins stretching south to the coast.

Ziemba said that instead of trying to clean up all the ground water in the San Gabriel Valley, an alternative would stop the spread of contaminants at Whittier Narrows and purify San Gabriel Valley water as it is drawn at wells for delivery to customers.

Bisson said it would take $3 million to $5 million to plan treatment systems for up to 150 San Gabriel Valley wells and from $185 million to $270 million to install the equipment and operate it for 50 years. The exact means of treatment would be determined in the planning process.

Bisson said it would take three to six years and $5 million to $18 million to prepare a plan to stop contaminants from passing under Whittier Narrows. The cost of carrying out the plan over 50 years would be $160 million to $340 million, she said.

In addition to these measures, Bisson said another proposal would attempt to keep the San Gabriel Valley's four plumes of contaminated ground water in place, limiting the problem to wells that are already bad. She said it would cost $14 million to $32 million to develop a plan and from $215 million to $678 million to carry it out.

Bisson said that when EPA officials began analyzing the costs, it became obvious that decisions must be made about cleanup alternatives and how to pay for the work. The Superfund authorization bill signed by President Reagan in 1986 provides $8.5 billion in cleanup funds nationwide over five years, and many projects compete for that money.

Bisson said EPA normally pays all the study costs and 90% of the capital costs for its Superfund projects. In addition, she said, on projects that restore ground water, EPA pays 90% of the operational costs of cleanup for up to 10 years.

Fund Outlook Clouded

At this point, Bisson said, EPA cannot guarantee that it will have the money to pay for its customary share on the San Gabriel Valley project. And, she said, state and local officials are being asked to begin thinking about how they could help finance the work.

EPA outlined the funding problems to top officials of state agencies last month. Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles, said no consensus emerged from the meeting, but a new funding mechanism must be found, perhaps through state legislation, a bond issue or a surcharge on water rates.

Until now, Ghirelli said, water utilities in the San Gabriel Valley have been able "to dance around the pollution problem" by closing contaminated wells and drawing water from their other wells, which are clean. But if the contamination is allowed to spread unchecked, he said, more wells could be affected, and severe water supply problems could develop.

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) said she will resist any effort to force residents of the San Gabriel Valley to pay for the cleanup themselves. She said the point of getting the contamination on the federal and state Superfund lists was to have the state and federal governments pay for the work. "I don't see how it can be a local responsibility," she said.

Bisson said some of the cleanup cost could be charged to polluters who caused the ground water contamination. But, she said, tracing sources of contamination, some of which may have occurred decades ago, is difficult.

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