The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is being forced to delay work on a cleanup plan at a Monterey Park toxic dump and curtail its investigation of ground water pollution in Los Angeles County, among other projects in the West, because of a breakdown in its contracting system, EPA officials acknowledged.
The officials said they belatedly discovered that one of their major contractors, CH2M Hill of Corvallis, Ore., has been employed on so many tasks that the EPA has already used up much of the engineering time the company was supposed to provide through 1990.
Officials said last week they cannot extend CH2M Hill's contract to cover all the work that needs to be done and it will take up to a year to award new contracts.
Therefore, EPA headquarters in Washington has rationed the amount of work each regional office can assign to CH2M Hill, delaying work on dozens of Superfund projects throughout the Western United States.
27 Regional Sites Affected
Jerry Clifford, Superfund program manager in Region 9, which covers California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii, said 27 of the region's Superfund sites will be affected.
In Southern California, the slowdown will reduce the number of people researching and monitoring the ground water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley. Clifford said the greatest danger from the delay is that pollution from contaminants in ground water could spread, making cleanup more complex and costly.
The problem will also delay a final cleanup plan for the Operating Industries Inc. dump in Monterey Park by a year. Clifford said systems that are already in place to keep landfill gas and toxic liquids from escaping will remain in full operation at the dump.
EPA also uses CH2M Hill to review plans for cleanup work at the Stringfellow acid pits in Riverside County, the McColl dump in Fullerton and polluted ground water in the San Fernando Valley. The slowdown will have little effect on this technical review work, EPA officials said, but a program to track sources of ground water pollution in the San Fernando Valley will be reduced.
Each Project Under Review
Clifford said it is not yet clear how the shortage of available man-hours will affect other Superfund projects in the region. Each project is being reviewed, he said, to determine what work can be deferred.
CH2M Hill, a consulting engineering firm with 3,200 employees, holds one of five national contracts awarded by the EPA for work to define problems, analyze solutions, design cleanup plans and manage construction at Superfund sites. The contract, awarded in November, 1985, and worth $160 million to $200 million, was designed to serve the six EPA regions west of the Mississippi River through 1990. But EPA regional offices ordered so much work from CH2M Hill that the ceiling of 1.2 million work hours will be exceeded in a matter of months unless the pace of work is slowed.
Paul Nadeau, acting director of the hazardous site control division at EPA headquarters in Washington, said, "Obviously we didn't detect the problem soon enough."
Last Contracts Awarded
But, he said, EPA was already aware that awarding contracts on a national basis had shortcomings and had begun a process under which 30 to 40 contracts will be awarded on a regional basis. Under this system, regional officials, rather than those in Washington, will be responsible for keeping track of the work that is ordered to ensure that it is in line with what is allowed under the contracts.
Unfortunately, Nadeau said, contracts that will serve Regions 9 and 10 on the West Coast, where CH2M Hill does most of its work, will be the last awarded.
Although the bidding process can take as long as a year, Nadeau said: "We hope to get new contracts on line sooner than that. We hope to have contracts in place in December or January."
In the meantime, EPA regions that employ CH2M Hill are being given allotments on the number of work hours they can assign. Clifford said the pace of work will be slowed so that CH2M Hill can stay on the job until April of next year.
Reginald A. Stone, senior vice president of Suburban Water Systems of La Puente, one of the San Gabriel Valley's largest water companies, said local water officials were distressed by the slow progress of the EPA effort even before they knew work was being delayed. Although the contamination of wells was discovered in 1979 and the problem has been on the federal Superfund list since 1984, no cleanup plan has yet been developed.
"Without even hearing this (the slowdown), we were getting frustrated," Stone said.
Industrial solvents, such as trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, have invaded dozens of wells in a water basin that serves about 1 million people. Seventy wells can now be used only if the water is treated or blended with purer water.