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Talks to Develop Aquifer Cleanup Plan Collapse

Pollution: Aerojet General Corp. and San Gabriel Valley water producers are many millions of dollars apart.

June 08, 2000|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aerojet General Corp. and local water producers have failed to reach agreement on a cleanup plan for the contaminated San Gabriel Valley aquifer, raising the prospect of costly litigation.

Discussions involving the defense giant, the Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster and the Environmental Protection Agency broke down Friday, blowing a federal deadline and dashing hopes that relief for the 16-year-old Superfund site was finally in sight.

Aerojet, considered by the EPA to be the largest polluter in the area, offered $48 million for producers to build their own treatment facilities, sources said.

"We put a proposal on the table we thought was fair and reasonable," said Rosemary Younts, Aerojet spokeswoman. "It was not a cash-out offer. It would not hold Aerojet harmless for past and future costs."

But water purveyors said that offer fell far short of the projected $150-million to $200-million cleanup cost.

That price has skyrocketed from the estimate of about $50 million given in 1997, when a hazardous byproduct of rocket fuel, called perchlorate, was detected in the water supply and traced to the Aerojet plant in Azusa. No treatment facilities at the time could deal with the chemical, which can stunt growth by interfering with the thyroid gland. At least nine wells in the Baldwin Park area were closed.

The San Gabriel Valley aquifer is very valuable, providing most of the drinking water in the area at a fraction of the cost of imported water.

EPA officials said that negotiations on the aquifer could resume in the future, but that Aerojet--the largest of 19 parties considered responsible for polluting it--probably would need to offer something new. "Something's got to change if there's going to be a deal here," said Wayne Praskins, Superfund site project manager.

If Aerojet doesn't raise its bid, the water producers said they would construct their own treatment facilities and sue the defense contractor to recover the costs.

"The Public Utilities Commission has ordered us to use all legal means to reduce our costs," said Mike Whitehead, president of the San Gabriel Valley Water Co. "If we don't have an agreement, [litigation] may be inevitable."

Whitehead said he was optimistic about further negotiations, however, because this "offer was significantly better than they have offered in the past." He hopes that potential federal funds from a bill presented by U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) and from smaller polluters would bring the total funding closer to the estimated cost.

Assemblyman Thomas Calderon (D-Montebello), who heads a select committee on San Gabriel Valley ground-water contamination, said the $48 million was "not a good-faith offer."

Calderon has criticized the EPA and the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority for not taking a harder line against the polluters and being more aggressive in filing a lawsuit. Yet he hopes that major court action can be avoided.

"If Aerojet doesn't come to the table, the water purveyors will do the cleanup themselves--and we'll pay for it," said Calderon, referring to the residents. "The purveyors will go to court and get paid in 20 years."

One of the sticking points in the negotiations has been the differing concerns of the EPA and the water providers.

Under an agreement reached between Aerojet and the EPA in September, there was no guarantee that the water table would be restored. Lack of such a guarantee would allow Aerojet to dump the treated water in the San Gabriel River or sell it. The agreement, which was never legally binding, fell apart.

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