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New Tax Urged to Fund Water Cleanup Board

June 30, 1988|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

EL MONTE — A group of water officials have conceded for the first time that cleanup of ground-water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley will require local funding through new taxes or surcharges on water bills.

Attorney Arthur G. Kidman, representing a committee of local water suppliers and producers, proposed creation of a San Gabriel Valley Ground Water Quality Authority at a state Water Resources Control Board hearing in El Monte Tuesday. Under the proposal, the board's activities would be partially financed through new taxes.

Kidman acknowledged that the proposal is controversial, particularly the provision for local funding. But he said a committee of the San Gabriel Valley Watermaster, a board that represents water suppliers and producers, has concluded that widespread pollution of ground water in the main San Gabriel basin cannot be overcome without raising money locally to supplement state and federal efforts.

Ultimate Remedy

John Wise, deputy regional administrator of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, earlier told the state board: "The San Gabriel Valley presents an environmental management problem of extraordinary scope and extraordinary complexity. We have not seen anything like it in this country, not to mention California.

"It may involve decades of time and hundreds of millions of dollars to ultimately remediate this contamination and to restore the integrity of the ground-water basin.

"It is certainly much larger than the ability of any one party, whether state or federal, to handle this alone. It is clearly going to require a collaborative effort on a vast scale over a long period of time."

Organic Pollutants

Thomas Stetson, engineer for several water agencies, told the board that 116 of the 392 wells in the San Gabriel Valley are contaminated with volatile organic compounds, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). He said 44 wells have been closed. The remainder either have contaminant levels within state and federal limits or the water is blended or treated to meet drinking water requirements.

The contamination was discovered in 1979 and the problem has been on the EPA Superfund cleanup list since 1984.

Although she was detained in Sacramento by legislative business, Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) sent an aide to deliver a statement to the board complaining that there has been "incredibly little progress" in cleaning up the pollution.

She noted in her statement that because ground-water contamination "is not really something you can see, touch or smell, San Gabriel Valley residents have not, for the most part, been up in arms about this problem." As a result, she said, it has been easy for the state and federal governments to put the problem on the back burner and spend money elsewhere.

Wise conceded that it has taken the EPA a long time to attack the problem, but he characterized the process as "prudent planning."

"We have to avoid the pressure to frantically throw a lot of money at the wrong problem; something to create an appearance of action," he said.

Too Many Meetings

Board member Diane Ruiz said she agrees, that "we shouldn't be running off to do something imprudent," but added: "The biggest problem I see going on here is that we have a lot of technical people (from different agencies) with the finest engineering and technical credentials who spend all their time going to meetings and facilitating further meetings. And very little actually going on in the ground."

Kidman said the proposal to create a ground-water quality authority is partly a response to the difficulties arising from the number of state, federal and local agencies that have responsibilities for dealing with aspects of ground-water contamination.

"The problem here is that there are too many cooks in the kitchen," Kidman said, "and no one of them is in charge. A head cook needs to be appointed and given enough authority to assist the other cooks so that everyone does a better job."

Kidman said the new agency would not take over or consolidate authority held by others, but would coordinate, supplement and focus efforts on the San Gabriel Valley.

Legislation Needed

Establishment of the authority would require state legislation, Kidman said. The agency would be governed by a board that could include appointees from the state Department of Health Services, County Board of Supervisors, Regional Water Quality Control Board and local water districts and organizations.

The EPA has urged establishment of such an agency to manage treatment systems and other facilities that are built to remove pollutants. The EPA will pay 90% of the cost of building and operating treatment plants for 10 years, but the state must pay the remaining 10% and the EPA intends to turn over management to another agency at the end of 10 years.

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