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Ventura County

State Takes Over Cleanup

Oxnard: Regulators assume control after officials warn that the toxic gasoline additive MTBE could eventually reach water wells that service 200,000.

June 21, 2002|KARIN GRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

State regulators Thursday assumed control of a groundwater contamination cleanup in Oxnard after local water officials warned of possible "catastrophic" results if immediate action was not taken to remove pollutants that may cause cancer.

If an underground plume of MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive, changed direction it could eventually reach water wells that supply 200,000 customers in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, water officials said.

"Our main intention is ... to protect the drinking water supply," said Dennis Dickerson of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Cleaning up the MTBE, which leaked before 1998 from a Poole Oil Co. underground fuel storage tank on Vineyard Avenue, was already on a fast-track list with work set to begin in September. But United Water Conservation District officials sent a letter last week to the state water board urging quicker action.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors also wrote the regulatory agency this week supporting the district's position. Until now, the county's Environmental Health Division had been in charge of the cleanup.

The edge of the 200-foot by 125-foot plume of MTBE, a possible carcinogen added to gasoline to reduce air pollution, was last located in May about 1,400 feet from the district's wells and was headed away from the water supply, said Steve Bachman, groundwater manager for the United Water Conservation District.

Tests in recent weeks show the slope of the groundwater is changing as a result of drought-like conditions, and Bachman fears this could redirect the MTBE toward the wells.

The worst-case scenario, Bachman said, is that the toxic chemical could reach the wells in about a year, forcing the district to shut down the field.

"That well field supplies about half of the water supply to 200,000 people. It's the most important well field in the county of Ventura," Bachman said.

"If we had to turn those wells off, the cities and the naval base would need to find an alternate source of water," he said.

Even if the MTBE never reaches the wells, Bachman is concerned that changes his water district has implemented to help avert disaster are damaging aquifers.

The district is diverting river water to an area beneath El Rio to repel MTBE so customers who normally receive that water have to use pumps, which in turn damage aquifers.

Bachman said the state-directed cleanup should start no later than mid-August and that plans should be revised so that the fastest, rather than the most cost-efficient, method is used.

The district also wants additional monitoring sites installed between the leak and the well field to ensure there are not any unknown concentrations of MTBE.

Dickerson, executive officer of the water quality board's Los Angeles region, said the state agency will now demand more frequent monitoring of the site.

Officials from the board, the water district, Poole and the Board of Supervisors will meet next week to review the latest cleanup plan and consider whether changes, including moving up the start date, should be made, Dickerson said.

"I think it's responding in a responsible way to the issue and that's what I wanted," said Supervisor John Flynn, whose district includes Oxnard.

"Bring people together and look at the scientific evidence, that's what they've got to do."

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