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Lawmaker Requests Probe Into Canceled Cleanup Order

Water: Attorney general is asked to investigate revoked plans to treat well contamination in San Bernardino County. Board's closed-door session is questioned.

September 21, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN BERNARDINO — Fueling accusations that Inland Empire officials are thwarting an environmental cleanup, a state senator Friday asked the attorney general to investigate a decision to cancel plans to treat chemical pollution infiltrating local water supplies.

In a letter to Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, state Sen. Nell Soto (D-Ontario) criticized the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board for rescinding an order demanding that two companies linked to a pollutant in Rialto clean it up.

Worse, Soto wrote, the decision to throw out that order was made behind closed doors.

Critics are demanding a probe of whether the board violated California's open-meeting law. And they want the cleanup order reinstated immediately.

Board officials conceded in interviews Friday that they did not have to make the decision in secret, though they contend they were legally allowed to do so.

The attorney general's office confirmed it had received the request to investigate but had not yet prepared a response late Friday.

Soto's demand for a probe follows allegations that San Bernardino County officials are shirking their responsibility to provide clean water--and hiding extensive knowledge of the pollution plume.

Earlier this month, members of a local pollution task force said a plume of perchlorate in northern Rialto has infiltrated so many wells that it could threaten the local water supply.

Barry Groveman, chairman of the Inland Empire Perchlorate Task Force, accused San Bernardino County of exacerbating the problem by burying a polluted site while expanding a landfill. The county denies blame for the pollution.

Then, last week, Arrowhead Regional Medical Center acknowledged that perchlorate, a compound used to make rocket fuel and munitions, had contaminated its well. Hospital officials said they had known of the contamination for at least two weeks but had not told the public or county officials because they were waiting to conduct more tests.

Arrowhead has since begun taking water from a clean line provided by the city of Colton, said Eric Fraser, Colton's director of water and wastewater.

Soto's letter to the attorney general says investigators have shown that numerous government agencies have known about the pollution for at least five years.

In the process, Groveman said, the agencies are disregarding the interests of the public.

"If you push an ineffective bureaucracy hard, they tend to push back," Groveman said. "We just have to make sure that we are pushing harder than they are pushing back. This is not the way to conduct the public's business."

Perchlorate, known to cause ailments including thyroid problems and, potentially, cancer, is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, according to federal environmental authorities.

County officials believe a plume of perchlorate was introduced into the groundwater by a slew of Cold War-era ammunition, munitions and ordnance manufacturing operations working under U.S. Department of Defense contracts.

So far, 17 wells in San Bernardino County have been shut down because of perchlorate pollution--and Soto said investigators believe as many 40 more wells may be polluted. Those wells supply water to a number of communities, including Rialto and Colton.

Members of the task force say two manufacturing operations are largely to blame for the pollution.

From 1957 to 1964, according to an affidavit, Goodrich Corp. owned and operated a 160-acre site north of Rialto where it researched and made military ordnance, including solid rocket propellants. Perchlorate was used in those manufacturing operations, Goodrich attorney Craig Moyer acknowledged Friday.

Also in the 1950s, West Coast Loading Corp. used a nearby site to manufacture flares for pistols and parachutes, state regulators and task force members have said.

In June, the board ordered the two companies to study and clean up the contamination. The companies were given a chance to appeal, which they did, bringing them before the board last week. Representatives for both companies argued there is no evidence that they discharged perchlorate into the groundwater.

After hearing arguments, the board went behind closed doors and rescinded the cleanup orders. Instead, the board said it would issue "investigative" letters to about 20 companies in a broader probe to determine contamination sources.

"We are going to be broadening this investigation as quickly as possible," said Jerald Thibeault, the board's executive officer.

Thibeault also defended the board's closed-door meeting.

"That's just our standard approach," he said. "You don't just do this stuff willy-nilly. You're talking hundreds of millions of dollars here."

Soto said it could take months, even years, before a probe actually leads to a cleanup.

"There is a very serious problem here," she said. "These agencies are responsible to the people in my district."

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