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Chemical Spill Pollutes Town's Water System

Safety: Santa Fe Springs residents are advised not to drink tap water after industrial detergent leaks from a factory.

September 01, 2002|DAREN BRISCOE and ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the small industrial city of Santa Fe Springs, residents woke up Saturday morning to an unsettling note on their doorsteps:

Do Not Drink Your Tap Water.

So even as the temperature outside approached 90 degrees, water from the faucet was taboo. Cooking and teeth brushing? Off-limits. Showering? Fine, but keep your mouth shut.

And those with sensitive skin, the city advised, should stay away from tap water no matter what.

Jessie Carlos said that when she read the flier on her front porch, "Right away, I was thirsty."

City officials issued the advisory after a material ironically known as Aqua-Quench 3600 spilled into the water system Friday afternoon. The liquid detergent, which is typically used to treat metal parts, can cause nausea and diarrhea, though nobody had reported any illnesses by Saturday night.

The spill affected about 3,500 homes and businesses within a 2-square-mile area, according to City Manager Fred Latham. Automated phone calls about the "industrial incident" were made at 11 p.m. Friday, and city employees began delivering the notices shortly afterward.

Santa Fe Springs residents were told they could pick up bottled water at either the Neighborhood Center or Town Center Hall, where 50,000 gallons were available.

Manuel Berumen spent Friday night delivering notices door to door and was back at work early Saturday morning loading bottled water into residents' cars.

By afternoon, the city worker estimated that he had given out 5,500 gallons.

"Overtime, baby," he said.

At Geezer's Restaurant, owner Bob LaRue said he cooked with bottled water, served canned sodas and didn't use the coffee machine.

"But, heck, on a day like today, who wants coffee anyway," he said.

Other restaurants simply closed. At Jack in the Box, a sign in Spanish and English read, "For the safety of the guests, due to water contamination, we took the liberty to close."

KFC opted to stop serving dishes that used water, such as mashed potatoes and corn.

Resident Philip Nieto, 26, said he found out about the spill just after he had finished drinking a glass of water. The water tasted fine, he said. Still, it was troublesome.

Shannon Zimmerman said she was giving her birds a drink Friday night when she noticed bubbles in the water. She went out for some of the city's free bottles.

"Now I can go water my birds," she said.

More than 17,000 people live in Santa Fe Springs, which is about 15 miles southeast of Los Angeles and is 85% zoned for industrial use.

As soon as city officials learned of the spill, they contacted state and county environmental authorities and flushed the water system several times to clear out the murky, contaminated water.

The city set up a command post and shut down water fountains at parks. About 125 city employees and more than 30 volunteers "just did what they needed to do, and it worked really well," said Fire Battalion Chief Mark Maguire.

Authorities were investigating the cause of the spill, which involved Bodykote, a company that produces metal parts for the aerospace industry, Latham said.

City officials expected tests to show that the water was again safe to drink by late Saturday night, when they planned to issue a new round of automated phone calls and distribute all-clear fliers.

*

Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.

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