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EPA to Contact Possible Water Contaminators

September 10, 1989|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin notifying companies in December that they have been tentatively identified as polluters of San Gabriel Valley ground water, making them potentially liable for millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

Terry Wilson, spokesman at EPA's regional office in San Francisco, said the notices will go to fewer than 50 companies, although hundreds are believed responsible for the pollution. He said additional notices will be sent as more polluters are identified.

Wilson said issuing the notices "is a big step" for the San Gabriel Valley ground-water cleanup effort. It will mark the first time the EPA has identified companies it believes responsible for creating what the State Water Resources Control Board staff calls the state's worst ground-water contamination problem.

The notices that will be mailed in December are so-called "general notices" intended to alert companies to the fact that the EPA believes that they may be responsible for pollution and invite them to begin a dialogue on the problem with agency officials.

'Specific Notices' Later

Those companies that are determined to be polluters will later receive "specific notices" informing them of liability and giving them 60 days to submit offers to perform cleanup work or pay cleanup costs.

About 25% of the water wells in the Main San Gabriel Basin--an area that provides water for 1 million people from Alhambra to La Verne--are contaminated with chemicals that could cause cancer, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE).

The pollutants are mostly industrial and cleaning solvents that have been in use for decades and may have entered the ground through leaking storage tanks, careless handling, disposal at unsafe landfills or other means. The contamination was discovered nearly 10 years ago, and the problem was placed on the EPA Superfund cleanup list in 1984. Although water producers have been able to keep clean water flowing to customers by drilling new wells, little has been done to clean up the contamination.

The EPA recently concluded that the contamination is so widespread that restoration of the ground-water basin to a pure state is all but impossible. The agency said it would take 10 years and $50 million just to develop a cleanup plan, and 30 more years and $800 million to carry the plan out.

Will Maintain Supplies

Because the federal government is never going to have that much money to spend on the San Gabriel Valley ground-water problem, the EPA has tentatively proposed a strategy that would concentrate on maintaining water supplies. At the same time, it would attempt to prevent the spread of contaminants from the San Gabriel Valley--through Whittier Narrows--to the adjoining Central Water Basin and clean up the most heavily contaminated areas.

Much of the cleanup work would be financed with funds from companies that created the pollution.

The EPA is giving the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles nearly $1 million this year to step up its search for pollution sources in the San Gabriel Valley, particularly in the badly contaminated area under Baldwin Park, Azusa and Irwindale.

Hank Yacoub, chief of the regional board's toxics program, said that chemical leaks have been found at dozens of plant sites and that companies are cleaning up their own property.

The most ambitious cleanup effort is being undertaken at BDP Co., a division of the Carrier Corp., which has spent more than $5 million so far cleaning up a spill that was discovered at its plant in the City of Industry.

Yacoub said the valleywide cleanup will be so expensive that it will not be possible to pay for it all with money from polluters. "We can't collect the entire sum from them," he said, "but we have to put the liability on the responsible parties."

The alternative, he said, would be to force the cost on water companies and their customers. And since they did not cause the pollution, Yacoub said, they rightly ask, "Why should I pay?"

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