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New Source Tapped for Pollution Cleanup : Legislation: A bill introduced in Congress calls for businesses identified as possible polluters to voluntarily contract to help restore the San Gabriel Basin.


SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Rep. Esteban E. Torres and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, backed by most of California's congressional delegation, have introduced legislation in Congress aimed at ending the gridlock over cleanup of the severely polluted San Gabriel Basin, which supplies drinking water to much of the San Gabriel Valley.

The two California Democrats submitted bills in the House and Senate to provide a slightly unorthodox way to pay for the cleanup, estimated over the years to cost anywhere from $300 million to $1 billion.

The bills call for businesses and industries that have been identified as possible polluters to voluntarily contract with federal environmental officials to share in the cleanup costs.

By agreeing to a pay a predetermined amount, businesses and industries would be exempt from further obligations. At least 300 potential polluters have been identified and hundreds more are expected to be named eventually by federal environmental officials.

One of the difficulties with the cleanup has been how to pay for it. This has contributed to the snail's pace of the cleanup of the contamination problem, which was discovered in 1979 and is one of the worst pollution problems of its kind in the nation.

Torres said the idea has gained support from environmentalists as well as business and industry representatives.

In many ways, the legislation is similar to a bill Torres submitted two years ago but withdrew to make changes based on complaints from all sides.

Since then, Torres has had "lengthy, almost painful meetings . . . to hear concerns by many, many people," according to his staff assistant for environmental issues, Fran McPoland.

The new legislation, she said, reflects those concerns.

One addition is the inclusion of a proposal for what is known as a "structured settlement."

Polluters can purchase trust funds, or annuities, that list as the payee the local water quality authority, which is overseeing the cleanup. This arrangement would allow polluters to receive a discount in buying the annuity and give them a larger tax write-off. At the same time, it would ensure a stream of money to be used for the cleanup.

"It's a win-win situation," McPoland said.

One aim of the bill is to try to forestall the spate of lawsuits and countersuits that are expected to occur as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifies and places legal blame on polluters.

Since 1984, the entire cleanup site has been on the Superfund list of national environmental priorities. Liability for polluters under the Superfund law is potentially extensive and in many cases has resulted in convoluted lawsuits by polluters attempting to recover their cleanup costs from municipal governments or other businesses.

In the case of the San Gabriel Basin, which supplies about 90% of the drinking water needs of residents from Alhambra to La Verne, it is possible that water companies themselves could be named in lawsuits. Torres, of Pico Rivera, said the companies might be accused of "moving and spreading the contamination."

In introducing the bill Wednesday, Torres told the House, "We must act now before we let the litigation monster loose."

In recent years Torres had criticized the EPA for inattention to the San Gabriel Basin's pollution problem. During the Bush Administration, Torres had tried unsuccessfully to meet with the then-EPA Administrator William K. Reilly to discuss the issue.

Earlier this year, however, he discussed it with the new administrator, Carol Browner. Torres said she stopped short of endorsing the legislation. But, McPoland said, she did say "it's a very interesting idea."

On the local level, the proposal is receiving stronger support than it previously had from all quarters.

Richard Nichols, executive director of the Baldwin Park Chamber of Commerce and board member of the San Gabriel Valley Economic Council, said: "We'll do all we can to push this bill through. Our main interest is in protecting small businesses."

Due to liability issues involving pollution under the land owned by businesses identified as potential polluters, some San Gabriel Valley property owners are having an impossible time of making real estate transactions, Nichols said.

The legislation would help remove "this cloud hanging over them," Nichols said.

Environmental groups have come out in support as well. The East Valleys Organization, a grass-roots group that for years has complained about the speed of the cleanup, backs the legislation. In a statement last week, the group said the legislation "employs a formula that will apportion costs broadly and equitably."

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