Public water supplies are being threatened by the buildup of polluted ground water in the San Gabriel Valley, forcing state and federal officials to rethink their cleanup strategy, said Neil Ziemba, manager of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund project for the area.
Ziemba said a new strategy evolving in discussions with state, regional and local agencies would give the state a larger role in finding sources of pollution and allow the EPA to put its resources into reopening wells, pumping polluted water and treating it.
Ziemba said EPA hopes to fully develop this new strategy by the end of this summer.
Ziemba told the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles this week that unless the spread of pollution is checked, the time will come when some San Gabriel Valley "water companies will not be able to meet drinking water standards."
Paul D. Flowers, chairman of the regional board, called Ziemba's report frightening and said it is further evidence that ground-water contamination is a growing problem for the region.
Ziemba said one-fourth of the water wells in the San Gabriel Valley are contaminated with industrial solvents, primarily trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). Thus far, Ziemba said, water companies have been able to deliver water that meets state and federal standards by closing contaminated wells and digging new wells in unpolluted areas. Although this has solved the immediate problem, it has done nothing to remove the contaminants.
Since ground water moves as much as 1,000 feet a year, Ziemba said, "the potential for spread of contamination is quite great.
"As more wells become contaminated," he said, "water companies that up to now have been able to supply clean drinking water are beginning to have more and more difficulty."
The cleanup task has become so large, Ziemba said, that the EPA "is not going to be able to do everything."
For several months, Ziemba said, the EPA has been alerting state and local officials and water companies that it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to control ground-water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley.
If the EPA must find the sources of contamination as well as provide treatment systems, he said, "it's going to limit the pace of cleanup in the valley."
He said sources of contamination must be found not only to stop solvents from leaking into the ground, but also to establish liability. He said a federal statute of limitations gives officials only six years after a treatment plant opens to identify polluters and bill them for the cleanup.
Ziemba said EPA will spend money on source investigation if the state does not, but the cleanup effort will take longer.
He said EPA's major effort now is to develop an overall strategy for bringing pollution under control in concert with state, regional and local agencies. He said the agency has been working with staffs from the state Department of Health Services and the regional water board, and "we hope to get (the strategy) finalized in the next few months."
In addition, Ziemba said, the EPA is talking to local water agencies about creating an umbrella agency to manage ground-water cleanup. He noted that more than 40 private and public water agencies draw water from the basin and that their cleanup efforts must be coordinated.
Although it has been eight years since contaminants were first found in San Gabriel Valley wells, no company has yet been identified as a major source of the contamination.
Ziemba said the EPA has focused its search for sources on companies in Baldwin Park, Irwindale and Azusa. He said the EPA may take enforcement action against several companies later this year, but he did not identify them.
The regional water board is attempting to identify sources of contamination near polluted wells in El Monte, Pomona, La Puente and the City of Industry.
Both Ziemba and Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the regional board, said their agencies do not have the money and manpower to undertake the comprehensive search for pollution sources that is needed.
Stan Phillippe, chief of the site cleanup and emergency response section of the state Department of Health Services' toxics division, said his agency is looking at ways to use existing state programs to aid the ground-water cleanup effort.
For example, he said, the state has a $1.7-million grant from the EPA to do preliminary assessments of Superfund sites. Phillippe said his agency is talking with the EPA about whether that program can be used to help find sources of ground-water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley.
In addition, he said, the state has alternative technology, waste recycling and public education programs that might be used in the area.
Hank Yacoub, chief of the regional board's toxics section, said the search for sources of ground-water contamination in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys could take until the turn of the century at its present pace, but could be accomplished in three to five years with about 15 more people working on it.
Yacoub said he hopes that a hearing tentatively scheduled by the state Water Quality Control Board on June 28 to explore the San Gabriel Valley ground-water problem will clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, regional and local agencies.