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Polluters Must Supply Clean Water

Davis signs two bills that require dischargers of Cold War-era chemical perchlorate to replace supplies tainted by the rocket fuel ingredient.

September 30, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Two bills designed to protect California drinking water supplies from contamination by the residue of Cold War rockets and other military munitions were signed Monday by Gov. Gray Davis.

The legislation will make clear that regional water quality boards can order dischargers of the chemical perchlorate to provide clean water to replace polluted supplies and to keep track of current inventories of the rocket fuel ingredient.

Perchlorate, a remnant of the Cold War era of weapons development in the 1950s and early 1960s, is considered by scientists to be a serious threat to public health when its subsurface plumes find their way into wells and other groundwater supplies.

Although it has been discovered at various spots around the state where defense contractors once produced weapons, perchlorate contamination is an especially ugly problem in the San Bernardino County city of Rialto, which recently lost 40% of its water supply when two wells had to be closed. Voluntary water conservation programs were ordered.

"We think this is a good step in the right direction," Brad Baxter, director of the city's public works department, said of Davis' approval of two bills -- SB 1004 and AB 826 -- by Sen. Nell Soto (D-Pomona) and by Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara).

Davis said in a statement that, unless swiftly controlled, contamination by perchlorate "could make much of the state's water undrinkable." The chemical has been blamed for disrupting operations of the thyroid gland, which can result in developmental disabilities.

Perchlorate threats also have been reported at sites in the Simi and San Gabriel valleys, Rancho Cordova near Sacramento and in Colorado River sources, which serve much of Southern California.

The Soto bill would make clear that perchlorate dischargers are subject to current law, which requires waste dischargers to provide clean water to municipalities or private well companies in exchange for supplies they have contaminated.

Perchlorate dischargers, often military bases and abandoned defense plants, also would be required to immediately report to state emergency and clean-water officials the discharges of 10 or more pounds of the chemical into a water supply. In addition, operators of perchlorate facilities that have stored more than 500 pounds of the chemical since 1950 must report how much of it was stored and where and how, and disclose any documents indicating that potential leaks had been investigated.

Violators who fail to report would be subject to administrative fines of $1,000 a day and court fines of as much as $5,000 a day.

The Jackson bill will establish a framework for enforcement of perchlorate regulations, including rules for managing perchlorate materials.

When funds become available, the state also is to create a database that could be consulted to prevent uncontrolled perchlorate discharges.

Over the weekend, Davis also signed a package of bills extending protections to patients in health maintenance organizations.

Two of the most significant bills in the HMO package -- SB 244 by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and AB 1286 by Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz) -- will strengthen the right of patients to continue treatments with a preferred doctor, even if the HMO terminates its contract with the doctor.

The "continuity of care" right will be extended to patients such as pregnant women, children from birth to 3 years of age and people scheduled for surgery within 180 days of contract termination.

"It's the second biggest step for patient rights in the nation, the first being the governor's HMO rights package" in 1999, said Daniel Zingale, the governor's Cabinet secretary, in a telephone interview Sunday. The legislation builds on the 1999 HMO reform legislation signed by Davis, which created a Department of Managed Health Care to act as a watchdog.

"It really is a testament to Frommer, Speier and others that they got the governor's final package through," Zingale said. "HMOs always had the right to terminate a contract with the doctor, the doctors have the right to walk out on an HMO financial relationship, but the patients have been left in the middle and used as pawns, and their care suffered. Now they have the right to get on equal footing."

Speier and Frommer rejected any link between the governor's signature on the legislation and the Oct. 7 recall special election -- a charge Arnold Schwarzenegger and other Davis critics have made about the governor's support of a number of bills in recent weeks.

"Once again, Mr. Schwarzenegger shows his ignorance in understanding and appreciating what the legislative process is all about," Speier said. "Every year, from Sept. 1 or Sept. 15 to Oct. 1 or Oct. 15, the governor signs thousands of bills into law. Mr. Schwarzenegger needs to take a Civics 101 class in California government to understand that this is precisely one of the roles the governor must take as one of his responsibilities."


Times staff writers Gregg Jones and Janet Wilson contributed to this report.

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