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Idle Water-Treatment Plant Proving Costly for Burbank

October 23, 1998|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURBANK — Chemical-wary residents reluctant to slake their thirst with municipal tap water may soon find another reason to stay clear of their faucets: Every drop is a drain on the city's budget, and possibly, its taxpayers, city officials say.

Blame it, say critics, on another costly case of government's right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing.

Regulators from the state Department of Health Services have kept a local water-treatment plant, run by Lockheed-Martin Corp., idle for 10 months.

The plant, which began operating two years ago, deals with the aftermath of decades of defense manufacturing, which used chemicals that tainted Burbank's underground water supplies, sickened many of its residents and spawned a slew of civil suits.

Lockheed and others agreed in 1992 to pay tens of millions of dollars to clean up the water over a 20-year period, building a plant to do the job just south of Burbank Airport.

The plan was approved earlier this year by a federal judge and signed off on by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lockheed and the city of Burbank, with concurrence of the state Department of Health Services.

But state officials who gave the nod to the deal were experts in chemicals--not drinking water--according to Gary Yamamoto, regional chief for the state Department of Health Services Division of Drinking Water.

When water experts came to issue permits for a plant expansion, they found design and operational flaws in one of the facility's filtration tanks, Yamamoto said. That left his agency no choice but to withhold a state operating permit until those problems were fixed, he said.

"We have very serious concerns that chemicals could be introduced into the water supply at levels that could present potential public health concerns," he said. "There is also a chance other chemicals that were not present in the wells could find their way into the city's water supply if something wasn't done."

The plant was supposed to produce 9,000 gallons of water a minute. Every month the facility stays off line, Burbank must spend $200,000 to $300,000 to import water from the Metropolitan Water District, adding up to millions of dollars the city didn't expect to spend this year, according to city officials.

The Burbank Public Service Advisory Board has recommended the city make up the difference by billing Burbank residents, who may have to pay 12% more for their water over the coming year.

Burbank City Council members say they are reluctant to pass any costs on to ratepayers but admit they must find a way to come up with a few million dollars more.

"It's a classic bureaucratic struggle," said Burbank City Manager Bud Ovrom. "We're the ones locked in the middle and it's maddening."

"This is an example of no one [from the federal government or the state] stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility," added Vice Mayor Stacey Murphy. "Meanwhile, they want our citizens" to pay the bill.

Federal regulatory officials say they too are frustrated with the inability to reach a solution. But, they concede, they aren't in position to do much about it.

The federal Superfund law that governs cleanup of toxic sites like Burbank's is binding only for the contaminated property, not water piped out of it, said EPA attorney Marie Rongone. That means that, unlike many federal cleanup projects, a state agency can exert power over the project through the permit process.

A spokesman for Lockheed-Martin Corp., which has been involved in the water cleanup effort in the San Fernando Valley for more than 10 years, described the state's actions as disheartening.

"We don't feel it's necessary to fix something that's not broken," said Gail Rymer. "We are as concerned about public health as anyone. And we designed the system to assure public health and safety."

The state defends its actions, saying the threat is real and the bottom line is ensuring safe drinking water for everyone.

The problem, state officials say, lies in a holding tank for chemical wastes extracted from well water in a carbon filtration process.

Because of what appears to be a flaw in plant design, chemicals removed from the well water, and stored in a facility known as Tank 600, are pumped into the main treatment plant and mixed into the incoming water supply, Yamamoto said.

"There is a very high concentration of chemicals in Tank 600, at least 100 times more potent than the well water," of perchlorethylene and trichlorethelyne, known carcinogens, said Yamamoto. "There are also other chemicals we have not been able to identify. Therefore, we conclude this is not an acceptable source for drinking water."

Yamamoto was at a loss to explain why the design problem was not detected earlier by federal EPA officials who approved the cleanup plan. But he said, it might have been because it was never presented to them.

"In their proposal, [the EPA], Burbank and Lockheed did not identify this [facility] as a source of drinking water," Yamamoto said. "They should have."

But Rymer disputed that.

"It's my understanding [state health authorities] reviewed the design prior to construction and granted the original operating permit," Rymer said.

Lockheed Martin Corp. and other businesses agreed in March to pay $60 million as part of a 20-year commitment to clean contaminated ground-water supplies under the city.

Lockheed, in a settlement with federal and state authorities, admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay for operation of the Burbank ground-water treatment plant for 20 years.

Beginning in 2000, the facility will be owned and run by Burbank, with Lockheed and the other businesses continuing to pay the cost. Lockheed officials were optimistic the plant would be back on line shortly.

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