SOUTH GATE — In the difficult business of finding ground-water polluters, the case of South Gate's tainted drinking water stands out.
When city officials called the state Department of Health Services for help a year ago, toxic investigators set aside several other possible Superfund cases and came out to take a look.
In many major ground-water cases, it takes years just to define the problem. Determining who should pay for the cleanup often comes much later.
South Gate was different not because of the health threat posed by chemicals in its wells before they were shut down or the $5-million price tag on its proposed water-purification plant, but because South Gate had a suspect.
Run Recycling Operation
And the suspect had a history.
About one-third of a mile away from Recreation Park, where four of six city wells closed by pollution are located, lies Cooper Drum Co.
Cooper Drum, a recycling operation where 55-gallon barrels are cleaned and stacked in towering rows, received public attention in April, 1987, when a caustic liquid soap began oozing from the soil at adjacent Tweedy Elementary School. The county cited Cooper for Tweedy's contamination.
Also found in the soil near the block wall that separates the company and the school--now closed because of soil and airborne contaminants from nearby industries--were high levels of the industrial degreasing solvent perchloroethylene, or PCE. Investigators say they think that Cooper is the source of that PCE contamination.
Concentrations of PCE also had been discovered in the soil at Cooper in 1984, when the company had to truck away 180 tons of soil contaminated through illegal discharges of hazardous wastes, according to county health department reports.
PCE is the chemical that forced South Gate to close its four Recreation Park wells in 1986 and another nearby well three weeks ago. All five wells are southwest of Cooper, in line with the flow of the aquifer from which all city wells draw their water, investigators say.
Testing is about to begin that may eventually determine whether the PCE in South Gate wells can be traced to Cooper.
"To me they're the obvious suspect," Cathy Rumfelt, South Gate's emergency services coordinator, said of Cooper, which also operates plants in South El Monte and Richmond.
Nestor Acedera, a supervisor for the Toxics Division of the state Department of Health Services said: "We're confident that we will find problems (at Cooper). All indications are that there are problems (with PCE) out there."
But company spokesman Barry Brown said he thinks no connection can be made between Cooper and the contaminated wells.
"We have no doubt in our mind that the site's clean. That's what we feel now. But until we get the test results we just can't say (for sure)."
Regular Use of Chemicals
In a previous interview, Brown said that Cooper regularly uses sodium hydroxide, a caustic soap used to wash barrels. Other chemicals at Cooper are the ones removed from near-empty barrels as they are cleaned, he said.
"So to have large-scale PCE contamination from this site doesn't seem likely. . . . Hopefully it doesn't come from here," he said.
A number of other companies that might have used PCE over the years are also located in the same general area, Brown said. "There are several large chemical facilities just north of us," he said.
City and state officials agree with Brown that PCE contamination is a problem throughout eastern South Gate and the Southeast area. A sixth city well closed by PCE is not near Cooper, nor are two other city wells where trace amounts of the solvent have been found. In all, PCE has been discovered in at least 50 public wells throughout the Southeast area since 1985.
"They're not the only (possible) suspect; we just don't know who the others are yet," said the city's Rumfelt. "We're not picking on them. It could be some other business."
Firm May Get Billed
If the Recreation Park contamination is finally traced to Cooper, Acedera said, the state or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--which might take over the case if contamination at Cooper is extremely serious--will press the company to pay at least part of the water cleanup costs that South Gate's 15,000 water customers now face alone.
There is also a possibility that state or federal Superfund money could be forthcoming. "We can see the potential for this site to rate close to the top of our (funding) list," Acedera said.
But that process of defining the problem, removing it and deciding who will pay for the cleanup could take years. So South Gate, which has lost 55% of its water supply to PCE, is not waiting for a state or federal solution.
At a hearing Monday, the City Council will consider construction of a $5-million treatment and storage facility at Recreation Park as part of a $25-million package of improvements for its 60-year-old water system.
'We Can't Wait'