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Maywood gets straight talk about its water quality

State scientists say Maywood's sometimes-brown tap water doesn't pose a public health risk, but they express concern about the presence of an industrial solvent in a few wells.

June 29, 2013|By Hector Becerra

In most towns, state officials showing up to announce that the drinking water was neither the best nor the worst in California would not be a big deal.

But in Maywood, where water has been a political blood sport, a peaceful meeting Saturday at the local YMCA, dominated by science and not verbal fisticuffs, was unusual. And welcomed.

The few dozen residents who showed up were told that the water they drank did not pose a public health risk, although officials expressed concern about the presence of one chemical in a few wells.

Maywood, a city of 27,000 residents packed into 1.2 square miles, has developed a reputation for being politically pugnacious and became known as a town where people fought over occasionally brown or tea-colored water. It was the result of a concentration of the mineral manganese in the water supply of two of Maywood's three water companies.

Manganese is naturally occurring and many people take it as part of multiple vitamins, said Roger Kintz, environmental coordinator for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has done water sampling in the city since 2010. It can have adverse health effects at very high levels over long periods of time, he said, but that does not appear to have been the problem in Maywood.

As a teenager, Mayor Oscar Magana said, he found himself showering in brown water.

"When I was 15 years old, I started washing my own clothes because I thought my mom was ruining my white shirts," the 31-year-old politician said. "About four years ago, I had to apologize to her. It wasn't her ruining the shirts. It was the water."

Some residents went to Sacramento, where they showed off bottles of water that looked like tamarind drink. It has become the subject of state legislation, including a newly proposed bill. The water issue became so heated that it led to yelling matches at Maywood City Hall. At times, the debates had a strong undertone of politics rather than science.

About four years ago, Cynthia Babich of the Del Amo Action Committee got together with activists in the city to form the Maywood Community Inter-Agency Partnership. Soon, the partnership engaged the Department of Toxic Substances Control to test Maywood's water. Sampling in 2010 and 2012 showed concentrations of manganese in water from Maywood Mutual Water Co. No. 1 and especially Maywood Mutual Water Co. No. 2.

More troubling, though, was a previously overlooked problem that the sampling found in a few of the source wells of Maywood Mutual Water Co. No. 3: the presence of trichloroethylene, or TCE, an industrial solvent that Kintz said could pose serious health risks at high enough levels. But the concentration of TCE has been kept below the regulatory limits.

Rick Fears, an engineering geologist for the state's toxic substances department, said the TCE had seeped into the water supply underground from industrial operations. He said a priority was to identify the source of the TCE and make whoever was responsible pay to clean it up.

Fears said installing certain filters had proved effective to reduce the presence of heavy metals and some chemicals. In recent years, the three water companies have also taken steps to improve the water supply, including building new treatment plants. Kintz said the water situation in Maywood was significantly better than it had been in the past, though there's more work to be done.

Sergio Palos, the general manager of Maywood Mutual Water No. 1, said a new treatment plant should be online in about a year and a half. In the meantime, his company has blended manganese-free water with its water that includes the mineral so manganese does not reach the tap in significant amounts.

Magana said it was important to have the scientists run the meeting in a city where "fear mongering" was rampant.

"You had different political groups all vying for attention and all spreading different messages," he said. "By bringing in the state, we have an independent group that is presenting the facts and allowing the community to make decisions based on facts."

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