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Cleaning Toxic Spill Without Government Prodding : Firm Finds Honesty Best, but Expensive, Policy

March 27, 1988|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

A company that blew the whistle on itself is finding that honesty is an expensive policy. But it is a policy that water officials hope other companies will follow.

In 1985, thousands of gallons of the cleaning solvent perchloroethylene (PCE) leaked out of a factory in Industry that makes air conditioning and heating equipment. So far, the company, BDP Co., has spent $5 million to clean up contamination of ground water under the plant.

Now, officials of the company, a division of the Carrier Corp., say it will cost millions of dollars more and take years to remove all the contaminants. An order outlining additional cleanup steps the company must take will be considered Monday by the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles.

Hank Yacoub, water board supervising engineer for toxics, said the order will set a precedent by declaring for the first time that companies that contaminate ground water must clean it up to the point where it meets state and federal drinking water standards.

What makes this cleanup unusual, according to water board officials, is not just the size of the task but the fact that the company discovered and reported the spill itself and has aggressively pursued the cleanup without prodding from government agencies.

Yacoub said the steps BDP has taken should be used as a model for other companies that have allowed chemicals to invade ground water.

After discovering the spill, the company hired water pollution experts to assess the problem, drilled 80 monitoring and extraction wells, constructed a pilot water treatment plant, created a laboratory to run water tests and redesigned its manufacturing process to avoid using PCE and related cleaning solvents.

E. James Norman, BDP's Western regional manager of governmental affairs, said studies by environmental experts show that most of the contaminated ground water is under the plant property. The nearest producing water well is about a mile away.

Norman said a natural clay barrier, about 45 feet below the surface, is keeping the contaminants from drifting into deeper water.

Must Drill Deeper

But Yacoub said the company will have to install more wells at deeper levels to prove the assumption that the contamination is confined to the shallow aquifer. He said the company has concentrated most of its study on water that is within 100 feet of the surface but needs to test deeper water by drilling down to 400 feet.

Norman said acting promptly was in the interest of both the community and the company.

Delaying the cleanup would have allowed the contamination to spread, increasing the cost and complexity of the work, Norman said.

"Any prudent businessman who has a social conscience would try to clean it up as fast as possible," he said. Besides, he added, "you're not going to get out of it."

The order that the regional board is expected to issue Monday will require the company, which employs 1,000 workers and has operated a plant on 67 acres since 1957, to expand its water treatment system and undertake more work to find out how far the water contamination has spread.

The BDP Co. has agreed to expand its water treatment system so that it can extract contaminants from 800 gallons of water a minute. It has been processing 100 gallons a minute in its pilot plant. Even at that accelerated rate, it will take 10 to 15 years to complete the cleanup, Yacoub said.

The PCE, also known as tetrachloroethylene, is widely used as an industrial and dry cleaning solvent. At BDP, metal parts that required cleaning were carried along a conveyor through tanks of PCE and through a vapor system.

Norman said the company was unaware that PCE was escaping until workers noticed that the process was using an excessive amount of the compound. The company investigated and found a leak in a sump that had been built into the factory floor to collect PCE at the end of the cleaning process.

Norman said it is unclear how long the leak existed. The company initially reported a spill of 15,000 to 20,000 gallons, but Norman said it now seems more probable that the amount was as little as 8,000 gallons, which would still make it the largest PCE spill ever reported to the regional water board, which serves Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Wells Closed

Yacoub said even tiny amounts of PCE spilled through careless handling or overfilling of storage tanks can cause problems by drifting down through soil to ground water.

PCE and other solvents in ground water have forced the closure of dozens of wells in the San Gabriel Valley, which depends on well water for 90% of its supply. The state advises against using any drinking water that contains more than 4 parts per billion of PCE. Ground water underneath the BDP plant has been found to have PCE concentrations as high as 310,000 parts per billion.

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