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Water Pollution Traveling Faster Than Solutions

TAINTED WATER: One of an occasional

June 19, 1988|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) claimed a major victory when she persuaded Assembly and state Senate committees last month to put $900,000 in the state budget to stem the pollution of ground water in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys.

But at the behest of Danny Walsh, a member of the state Water Resources Control Board, whose responsibilities include the protection of ground water, the Senate committee dropped the allocation from its version of the budget, leaving Tanner furious.

Walsh said he opposed Tanner's proposal because it would have taken federal funds from a pilot program that helps cities and counties clean up leaks from underground tanks. Tanner said the pilot program doesn't help the San Gabriel Valley because Los Angeles County has refused to participate.

To break the impasse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has offered to provide $1 million for the investigation into pollution sources.

Officials Disagree

In separate interviews, Tanner and Walsh agreed that ground-water pollution must be stopped in the San Gabriel Valley. But they disagreed on which government agencies should be doing the work and on how the money should be allocated.

Their disagreement mirrors a struggle that has been under way for years in Sacramento between legislators and Gov. George Deukmejian's Administration over management of toxics programs and whether the state or local governments should enforce environmental regulations.

Partly as a result, no decisions have been made on who should lead the effort to identify the sources of pollution in the San Gabriel Valley or how to pay for the work.

W. Don Maughan, chairman of the state Water Resources Control Board, met last week with Tanner and John Doyle, deputy secretary of environmental affairs, to discuss ways of meeting Tanner's objectives while also funding the pilot underground-tank program. Tanner said the possible EPA funding was suggested as a way of resolving the problem.

Policy differences between the administration and legislators have delayed toxic cleanups throughout the state, Maughan said.

In addition, the cleanup effort in the San Gabriel Valley was set back when the state changed its mind about leading the effort and turned the job over to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1985.

Extent of Pollution

Authorities learned eight years ago that such suspected carcinogens as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) were seeping into wells in the main San Gabriel basin. Today, the pollution is spread over 40 square miles, and 70 wells have been shut down or can be used only if the water is treated or blended to reduce the contaminants.

EPA, the state Department of Health Services, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and the county all run programs dealing with ground-water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley.

The passage of piecemeal legislation, giving different government agencies overlapping responsibilities for environmental regulations, has led to confusion and inefficiency, Maughan said.

"I don't know that (all the work) has to be done by a single agency," he said. But the cleanup effort must be coordinated, he added.

Maughan said he hopes that a June 28 hearing by the state board on San Gabriel Valley ground water will lead regulatory agencies and water officials to develop a coordinated approach.

EPA, the regional water board and the state Department of Health Services already are attempting to develop a coordinated strategy.

Thomas E. Shollenberger, Alhambra city utilities manager and president of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Water Assn., said that water officials have been frustrated by the slow progress in shutting down sources of pollution.

Work Not Coordinated

"It is not that no one is doing anything about it," he said. Several agencies are working on parts of the problem, but "everybody is working at their own speed and direction." Meanwhile, he said, pollutants continue to leak into ground water.

Thomas Stetson, engineer for the San Gabriel Valley Watermaster, a board that controls pumping by the 46 water companies and municipal water departments that draw water from the basin, said the contamination probably began in the 1940s.

Decades ago, Stetson said, machine shops, dry cleaners and other businesses used PCE, TCE and carbon tetrachloride as cleaning solvents without being aware of their potential danger. When the solvents were thrown away, Stetson said, "I'm sure they just dumped it out the back door, down the alley or took it and dumped it in the first hole they could find. There has probably been stuff dumped all over the place."

Low Superfund Priority

Although stringent controls are now in effect on the storage and disposal of TCE, PCE and other hazardous materials, solvents may still be entering the ground through illegal dumping, careless handling and delays in enforcing environmental regulations.

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