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Superfund Well Cleanup Drains Money, Confidence : Pollution: San Gabriel Valley businesses face a huge bill. Slow progress raises doubts about federal program.


It has been 15 years since the first evidence of chemical contamination showed up in a San Gabriel Valley water well. It has been 10 years since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the valley's huge aquifer a national Superfund site.

Since then, one quarter of the valley's public water wells have been shut down and at least $50 million has been spent investigating the problem. Hundreds of private firms have been tapped by the EPA to cleanse the aquifer, which supplies drinking water to more than 1 million people.

But except for a treatment plant providing water for a few hundred people, the cleanup effort has yet to begin. After a decade of federal intervention, the aquifer remains one of the most heavily contaminated potable ground water basins in the nation.

Now, the EPA is talking about a final cleanup bill between $200 million and $800 million that will be handed directly to local businesses. The potential impact on the valley's economy, along with nagging doubts about the effectiveness of the proposed cleanup technology, is sapping what's left of public confidence in the EPA and the Superfund program.

"After 10 years of confusion, power struggles and bureaucratic inaction, the community in the San Gabriel Valley is no longer convinced that Superfund, under the direction of the EPA, is going to solve their problem," Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente), wrote in a recent analysis.

In some ways, the San Gabriel Valley quagmire epitomizes the entire Superfund program. Nationwide, it has consumed $30 billion since its inception in 1980 while managing to clean up fewer than 10% of the country's 2,000 toxic waste sites. The mounting frustration of business and environmental groups has sparked demands for overhauling the Superfund law and led to a recent set of restructuring proposals by the White House.

But in many ways, the San Gabriel Valley situation is in a class by itself.

Although the Superfund law is designed to make polluters foot the bill for the nation's most lethal accumulations of waste, it is not easy to say who created the toxic soup under the San Gabriel Valley.

The ingredients have been percolating for nearly half a century, fed by fertilizer when the valley was a farming community, by household septic tanks and by chemical waste from many of the 48,000 firms that set up shop after World War II. A variety of chemicals have turned up in the water; the most potent are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which can break down into human carcinogens.

The task of identifying the polluters is further complicated by the nature of the pollution, which is hidden from view and moving around beneath the 170-square-mile valley. Contaminated water under a piece of property may have come from that site or may have drifted "downstream" from some other source.

Superfund critics argue that society caused the contamination and ought to pay for eliminating it through taxes or an increase in water rates. Under the law, however, the EPA must try to track the contamination back to its above-ground sources and bill the property owners.

So far, the EPA has compiled a list of about 400 businesses that may be asked to pay the final cleanup bill.

Targeted companies could be looking at costs ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than a million. That does not include the $135 million that officials estimate must be spent to detect and remove chemical contaminants from the soil above the water table.

The EPA's dealings with local firms have been widely assailed. "It may be futile, excessively expensive and unfair" to try to tie the contamination to specific businesses, Torres wrote in his report on the issue last year.

"There's been a tendency to see the businesses as criminals," said Jim Goodrich, the director of the San Gabriel Valley Water Quality Authority, a public agency created four years ago to look for new solutions.

"Some of the regulators seemed to forget that for a very long time there were no regulations on how to dispose of this stuff. It wasn't all that long ago you could buy one of the most notorious solvents around to clean your carburetor, and if you happened to spill some of it on the ground, you weren't breaking any laws."

Defending the government's work, Wayne Praskins, the EPA's project manager for the San Gabriel Valley Superfund, argues that the agency is doing a good job of pinpointing responsible companies, although he concedes that not all of them will be found.

Praskins said the EPA is on the verge of releasing its first detailed ground water treatment plan. It will focus, he said, on two dozen to three dozen firms in the Baldwin Park area, which will be asked to pay as much as $90 million in cleanup costs.

"We feel reasonably confident we have singled out the significant sources of contamination," he said.

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