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Sources of Pollution Sought : U.S. May Help Pay for Tainted-Water Search

September 25, 1988|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board will receive more than $2 million in federal money to speed its search for sources of ground-water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley, if a proposed agreement is approved by state and federal officials.

The agreement, drafted by the regional board in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency, would channel EPA funds to the lagging effort to find water polluters.

Although the pollution investigation would be confined to the San Gabriel Valley, it would also benefit cities in the Southeast area, because ground water flows from the San Gabriel Valley southward through Whittier Narrows.

Thomas Salzano, assistant general manager of the Central and West Basin Water Replenishment District, which serves the area from Whittier south to Long Beach, said his agency is closely monitoring the San Gabriel Valley ground-water pollution problem.

"We don't want to be the recipient of their mess," he said.

San Gabriel Valley water officials had been so dismayed by the slow pace of the investigation of contaminated wells that three months ago they proposed creating a valleywide agency to manage the cleanup of contaminated ground water and push the pollution investigation.

But Reginald A. Stone, senior vice president of Suburban Water Systems and head of the committee that proposed the valleywide water authority, said the proposal is being withdrawn.

He said water officials believe the pollution investigation will be speeded by federal money and are concerned that creation of a water authority would simply add another layer of bureaucracy.

The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to act Oct. 20 on an agreement that would give the regional board $544,000 in federal funds to investigate polluted wells in the San Gabriel Valley next year and about $800,000 in each of the following two years.

The money would be used by the regional board to hire investigators to look for pollution sources near contaminated wells.

There is widespread contamination of ground water in the Main San Gabriel Basin, which supplies 90% of the water to 1 million San Gabriel Valley residents.

Officials first detected in 1979 that industrial solvents, such as trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, had seeped into wells, but hardly any of the water has been cleaned up, and authorities say they cannot be sure that the contamination has been stopped.

The EPA and the regional water board have been working to find sources of ground-water contamination, but their efforts have been hampered by a shortage of manpower and money.

Dual Investigation

The EPA has investigated potential sources of contamination of polluted wells in Irwindale, Baldwin Park and Azusa, while the regional board has concentrated on El Monte, La Puente, the City of Industry and Pomona.

Jon Bishop, regional board associate engineer and coordinator of the San Gabriel project, said the proposed agreement with the EPA will enable his agency to broaden the effort to investigate contaminated wells throughout the San Gabriel Valley. The current staff of five working on the project would be increased by four employees next year and six the following year.

Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the regional board, said the project is being planned for three years, but it is uncertain whether every possible source of ground-water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley can be investigated in that time.

"Our goal is to sweep the basin (in three years), but we have to consider how quickly we can get the staff on board," he said.

Progress will be analyzed at the end of every year. The regional board has said sources of contamination include leaks from chemical storage tanks and landfills and sloppy handling of industrial chemicals. Many companies that have allowed chemicals to seep into the ground have been ordered to investigate contamination and clean it up, but no company has yet been charged with responsibility for polluting the ground-water basin.

Prosecution Difficult

EPA officials have said they eventually hope to collect part of the cost of the cleanup, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, from companies and individuals responsible. But the pollution is so widespread and stretches back so many years that authorities have conceded that many of the culprits will never be identified.

The Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster, which regulates pumping of ground water, appointed a Basin Water Quality Management Committee after EPA officials said earlier this year that the water-contamination problem is so large and complicated and the cleanup will be so prolonged that the EPA will require state and local participation to handle it.

The committee had proposed forming a San Gabriel Valley ground-water quality authority to supplement and accelerate EPA and state efforts. The proposal was made in a 34-page report submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board at a hearing in El Monte in June.

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