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Hospital's Water Well Is Polluted

Safety: Inland Empire medical center fails to alert county officials. Facility's administrator says he is seeking an independent test first.

September 17, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLTON, Calif. — The water well supplying Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, San Bernardino County's general hospital and one of the major trauma centers in the Inland Empire, has been contaminated with a pollutant apparently left behind by Cold War-era munitions plants, officials said Monday.

At least two weeks ago, hospital tests confirmed the presence of perchlorate, a compound that is often used while making rocket fuel and munitions and is known to cause a number of ailments, including thyroid problems and cancer.

The medical center found 8.6 parts of perchlorate per billion in its well, said Arrowhead Chief Executive Mark Uffer. State regulators say there is reason to be concerned whenever levels exceed 4 parts per billion, but there is no immediate danger. Medical analysts say it takes years of exposure before perchlorate can cause disease.

After discovering the pollution, representatives from Arrowhead called Colton City Hall to inquire about circumventing the hospital's water supply by hooking up with a clean water line from the city, said Eric Fraser, Colton's director of water and wastewater.

But the hospital never called back, officials said. Since then, the hospital has not alerted the public, nor administrators in San Bernardino County, which owns the institution, the officials said.

State law requires the hospital to alert the Board of Supervisors when perchlorate is discovered in its water supply in amounts greater than 4 parts per billion, said Rufus Howell, assistant chief of the California Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management. That hasn't happened.

California regulators also recommend immediate public disclosure, though it's not required by law, Howell said.

Several area officials questioned the hospital's decision to remain quiet about the contamination, particularly when Colton officials say they are fully prepared to begin piping in clean water.

"They are not, in my opinion, taking the prudent action to avoid the risk to public health," Fraser said. "If you can avoid it, do it."

But hospital administrator Uffer said that he just learned of the perchlorate report Monday, and that he wants to double-check the report through an independent test before alerting the Board of Supervisors or the public.

"I'm concerned about it," Uffer said. "But before we report that to the Board of Supervisors we want to independently verify that number.... I want to make sure we have accuracy here before we go off the deep end."

The contamination makes Arrowhead the most direct and high-profile victim to date of a widespread pollution problem that spilled over last week, when members of a local pollution task force said a plume of pollution in the Inland Empire could threaten water supplies and, ultimately, future development.

Environmental officials and members of Inland Empire Perchlorate Task Force believe the pollution dates back to a series of manufacturing operations in and around Rialto. Some of those companies manufactured rockets, missiles and flares, and date back decades to the Cold War. They were intentionally placed far from the coast in case the United States came under attack from ships.

The chairman of the task force also accused San Bernardino County last week of exacerbating the problem by burying the site of the pollution under 6 million cubic yards of soil while expanding its landfill. The county denies that it is to blame for the problem.

So far, 17 wells in San Bernardino County have been shut down because of perchlorate pollution. In one case, 820 parts per billion of perchlorate was found--more than 200 times the state's danger threshold, officials said. In nearby communities, including Rialto and Colton, some officials fear the state could step in and impose building moratoriums in regions that don't have enough clean water to support new development.

Arrowhead Regional Medical Center opened in March 1999 as a replacement for the aging San Bernardino Medical Center, and quickly became one of the primary health care providers in the Inland Empire. Its mandate includes serving the region's poor and uninsured, and more than 5,000 people a month go to its emergency room.

When it opened, Arrowhead was billed as a new sort of a hospital--so user-friendly that its hallways were given street names to simplify navigation, its staff was trained in a customer service program known as "charm school," and its high-tech incubators were designed to be quiet so they wouldn't wake the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

The medical center, which is in Colton, also built its own water well, just blocks from some wells that have already been shut down.

Officials and analysts were divided Monday over whether the medical center should have disclosed the pollution.

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