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Flood of Public Doubt Greets Plan to Clean Up Water

May 17, 1990|BERKLEY HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EL MONTE — With color-coded charts, sophisticated maps, slide shows and exhibits resembling a school science project, federal and state environmental officials Tuesday unveiled their $106-million water pollution cleanup plan to a skeptical San Gabriel Valley audience.

"San Gabriel is a top priority," said Tom Kremer, an official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. He spoke to 60 people at the first of two workshops to explain the proposed cleanup of underground water pollution spread across much of the San Gabriel Valley.

But despite the federal and state officials' lengthy presentations and assurances of concern, some in the audience weren't persuaded. "I feel like the carpetbaggers are here. They're just tickling the public fancy," said Geoff Nunn, president of the Whittier-based California Domestic Water Co. "Promises, promises, promises and nothing delivered."

Don Mauri, a Hacienda Heights resident and South El Monte business owner, said, "This meeting is an exercise in futility."

"We really want to know what you think," said David Cohen of the state Water Resources Control Board. He urged those in the audience who had strong feelings to make their comments in writing by the July 20 deadline, when state and federal officials will assess public reaction to the short-term cleanup plan announced last month.

Kremer acknowledged that the problem with toxic pollution in the San Gabriel Valley, as well throughout America, "is bigger than people realized" a decade ago.

Environmental officials consider the San Gabriel Valley situation to be one of the worst in the West. The 45 water suppliers in the region have managed to continue providing their 1 million customers with water that meets all state and federal quality standards. To do so, though, is increasingly expensive.

"This problem took 40 to 50 years to get to this stage, and it's going to take a long time to solve it," said Neil Ziemba, the EPA's project manager for the San Gabriel Valley, which six years ago was placed on the federal Superfund list of the nation's 1,200 worst pollution problems.

In response to one critical comment about how federal environmental officials have handled the water pollution problem, Ziemba replied: "We acknowledge there's a lot we do not know."

After the hearing, a retired couple from Azusa, Bob and Betty Wertz, studied a map showing plumes of underground water pollution. "I'm getting so I hesitate to take a drink of water," Bob Wertz said, tracing his finger on the map where his house is situated, not far from the pollution. "We're surprised so few citizens get involved. We think it's real serious, but most of our neighbors don't really seem to care."

The last workshops on the plan will be June 28 at El Monte Community Center, 3130 N. Tyler Ave. The afternoon session will run from 2:30 to 5 p.m. The presentation will be repeated that evening from 7 to 9:30.

In addition, the state Water Resources Control Board will hold a hearing in November to assess what progress is being made with the cleanup.

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