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Toxins Pose Water Risk in Inland Empire

Environment: Critics assail San Bernardino County for burying former manufacturing site polluted with hazardous waste.

September 13, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

State regulators said Thursday that an underground plume of chemicals is threatening Inland Empire water supplies--and, potentially, future development--and that San Bernardino County acted like a "common corporate polluter" by literally burying the problem.

But San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said the source of the pollution remains unclear and that it is far too early to blame the county. He said the county is simply an easy target for critics because of its size and budget.

According to state officials and the head of a task force overseeing the pollution problem, San Bernardino County, in an effort to create a regional landfill, paid $5 million in 1993 to buy a 96-acre plot north of Rialto.

Then, starting in 1999, the county began covering the site with nearly 6 million cubic yards of soil as much as 100 feet thick.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 507 words Type of Material: Correction
Landfill pollution--A story in the California section Friday about toxins posing a water risk in the Inland Empire should have made it clear that state environmental regulators were not accusing San Bernardino County of ignoring toxic chemicals in a landfill. That accusation, which county officials deny, came from the leader of a local pollution task force.

But the county buried the site, according to state regulators and critics on the task force, with full knowledge that the land had long been a receptacle for hazardous waste.

Starting during the Cold War, manufacturers of rockets, missiles and flares began operating at the site--placed there, in large part, because they were far enough inland that they couldn't be damaged if the West Coast came under attack from offshore ships.

Perchlorate Discovered

According to the state and the task force, county documents indicate that in June 1998, environmental investigators took a soil sample and discovered high concentrations of perchlorate.

The chemical, often used while making rocket fuel and ammunition, can cause a number of ailments, particularly thyroid problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pregnant women exposed to the compound are also at risk, according to the government.

The county's decision to bury the site--when it knew about the contamination--was reckless, said Barry Groveman, chairman of the Inland Empire Perchlorate Task Force, which has been investigating the area for two months.

"These are acts of malfeasance that led to the entombing of this area," Groveman said. "It's hard to believe, given all the environmental laws and common sense, that they would have done that. This is going to have to be studied very carefully."

Groveman and others accused the county of failing to cooperate with the investigation into the pollution problem surrounding the landfill--spurning, for example, calls for the county to pay for new water supplies for surrounding towns whose wells may be contaminated.

"They need to act more like the guardian of the public trust and less like a common corporate polluter," Groveman said. "This is a crisis."

Wert said San Bernardino County is "as interested as anyone else in having clean water and getting to the bottom of this."

"If it turns out the county is in any way responsible, the county will step up to the plate and do what it has to do to rectify the problem," he said. "What the county is not going to do is simply hand over untold sums of taxpayer money to solve the problem. The county is not going to take the blame for what someone else did."

The plume of perchlorate is believed to have penetrated the so-called Colton-Rialto Basin, from which several neighboring towns and agencies draw water that is delivered to area homes.

19 Wells Affected

Two years ago, the federal government linked perchlorate to thyroid problems and drastically lowered the threshold for what is considered a dangerous level of the compound in ground water.

Since then, 19 wells in San Bernardino County have either been shut down or reduced to limited use.

In one case, 820 parts per billion of perchlorate was found--more than 200 times the danger threshold, officials said.

The closing of wells has led to a host of concerns about development.

If too much water is off-limits because of the pollution, the state might step in and impose building moratoriums in area cities.

The cities that rely on that water, including Colton, Fontana and Rialto, are blue-collar towns that depend largely on new development for economic growth.

In Colton, three wells have been shut down because of the pollution, said Eric Fraser, the city's director of water and waste water.

"Development is tied directly to water supply," Fraser said. "We're running out of places to drill."

State regulators suspect at least a portion of the contamination stems from former plants where companies conducted research on rocket fuel, built flares for pistols and parachutes and conducted other work for defense contractors.

San Bernardino County believes those companies will ultimately be responsible for cleaning up the problem, Wert said.

At least one company that once operated on the 96-acre site, however, could put the county in a financial jam.

That operation, Broco Environmental Inc., eventually moved and became Denova Environmental Inc.--a hazardous waste facility in Rialto with such a poor maintenance record that barrels of chemicals and waste on its lot once spontaneously combusted.

State environmental officials and others continue to clean up the site where Denova stood.

Because that company is bankrupt, Groveman said, San Bernardino County may have to assume liability for the pollution.

The state Department of Toxic Substance Control on Monday ordered San Bernardino County to investigate the site, and a group of government officials called on the county Thursday to work with the task force.

"Hiding the facts only serves to lengthen the time it will take to clean up this mess and the amount of money that will have to be spent," said Rialto Mayor Grace Vargas. "The last thing our communities need is to waste time and money uncovering information that the county should have given us months ago."

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