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The Region

Attorney General to Probe Decision on Water Quality

Environment: Inland Empire regulators are accused of letting two alleged polluters off the hook in secret meeting. Plume affects wells in the Rialto area.

September 24, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer will look into claims that Inland Empire officials improperly deliberated in secret before tearing up an order to clean up a large pollution plume that has infiltrated a series of water wells, a state senator said Monday.

Sen. Nell Soto (D-Pomona) asked for an investigation last week into the pollution in and around the San Bernardino County city of Rialto. She said she was heartened Monday by a conversation with the attorney general.

"He said he'd be happy to do it," Soto said. "I just want something done. I'm just so tired of people not thinking that this is serious. Here are these people at risk, and people don't care--or they are acting like they don't care."

Lockyer's spokeswoman, Sandra Michioku, said the attorney general was preparing a response to Soto's request "as quickly as possible," but said it was not clear how long that would take.

Earlier this month, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency responsible for protecting water quality in the region, rescinded an order demanding a cleanup by two companies that once ran manufacturing operations in Rialto.

The decision angered critics, many of whom say the official response to the plume has been lackadaisical and irresponsible.

Members of a task force of government officials believe the contamination dates to a series of Cold War-era manufacturing operations in Rialto and surrounding communities. Some of those companies manufactured rockets, missiles and flares using perchlorate--a chemical known to cause a number of ailments, including thyroid problems and cancer.

So far, 17 wells in San Bernardino County have been shut down because of perchlorate pollution. In one well, perchlorate was found at levels more than 200 times the state's danger threshold.

In communities surrounding the plume, including Rialto and Colton, municipal officials have said they fear the state will impose a building moratorium if there isn't enough clean water left to support new development.

The task force has pinned much of the blame for the contamination on two companies, both of which say they are not at fault. The companies went before the Water Quality Control Board earlier this month to contest orders that they clean up the site. After the board adjourned into closed session, it announced that the cleanup order was being thrown out.

Instead, board members said they wanted to launch a broader investigation by sending letters to as many as 20 companies that might have had a hand in the contamination.

The board says it had the legal right to deliberate in secret, in part because of the potential threat of litigation over its decision. It concedes that the public did not receive proper notice in advance that there would be a closed-door meeting, but the board says that was due only to a typographical error on an agenda.

As a result of the outcry over the board's decision, it will meet again to deliberate the pollution investigation publicly in late October, Assistant Executive Officer Kurt Berchtold said Monday.

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