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Impossible Choices

While cleaning up solvents in L.A.’s water supply, did regulators pull another potentially deadly chemical into the pipes?

July 8, 2004

By Chip Jacobs

Five years ago, after a federal groundwater cleanup in the eastern San Fernando Valley finally transitioned from legal haggling to actual drilling equipment, a healthier era seemed to be dawning for city water.

Dangerous solvents had stewed for years under the cities of Glendale and Burbank – environmental leftovers from the Valley’s military and heavy manufacturing past – but they were coming out of the ground at last. Extraction wells pumped out the toxin-laced water, shooting it through gleaming filtration plants, and purified drinking water arrived at the taps. Corporate finger-pointing over who should pay for the federal Superfund work had receded. Even noisy activists fell happily silent.

As things would evolve, however, that euphoria about progress you could drink would soon give way to the law of unintended consequences.

It was in 1998 that two state technicians asked a pesky question: What about the chromium 6? The greenish-yellowish material, made infamous in the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, had pooled into creeping groundwater plumes. Some of them had co-mingled with the solvents into a noxious mix that many regulators hadn’t seen coming. The officials wondered: Could purging the volatile organic compounds (VOC) draw a more toxic, unfilterable contaminant into the water pipes? Had sufficient brainpower considered this?

While there is no definitive agreement today whether the solvent cleanup wells are dragging in chromium 6, anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial volume of the chemical has been pulled into the system thanks to subterranean physics and good intentions gone awry.

By blending chromium-rich water with purer sources, local cities have been able to supply businesses and homes with water that meets California safety levels.

Still, it’s a mess that no one wanted and regulators with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would prefer to forget. The groundwater-borne solvents have been an EPA remediation goal since being discovered in the 1980s.

In a sense, it’s like a surgeon wedged between a grim set of choices. A patient needs a cancerous mass removed before it spreads, but the operation itself could unleash even deadlier agents into the bloodstream.

“Everybody is trying to cover every base,” said one industry observer. “The problem occurs when you discover a chemical after you’ve built a facility” to deal with another.

Chrome Was Known

The Valley’s Superfund plants strain out chemicals long used by industry as degreasers, among other purposes. Effective in factories, they are destructive to the body, linked with central nervous system disorders, organ damage, allergy-like symptoms, and cancer.

Chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, is more lethal, though it’s not a Superfund target. It’s an established carcinogen when inhaled as dust and is believed in some medical circles to cause an array of blood and intestinal cancers when ingested in water. It was widely used by Valley defense contractors and metal plating shops, particularly as a rust inhibitor, and leached into the ground over decades.

Unlike VOCs, California’s efforts to regulate chromium 6 have been as messy as a chemistry lab explosion. No scientific consensus has hardened around the dangers it poses. Skeptics carp that eliminating it from the groundwater might stick cities and businesses with tabs for hundreds of millions of dollars. Dogged by uncertainties, the state is years late in setting a legally mandated safety level for it in tap water and are also 2.5 years tardy in issuing a risk assessment of chromium in the Valley aquifer, as recently reported in CityBeat. A blue-ribbon report gauging the chemical’s carcinogenic potency didn’t do much better. It was discarded amid allegations of corporate manipulation traced to Pacific Gas & Electric (the utility Brockovich crusaded against), Lockheed Martin Corp., and a small band of insiders.

Even so, the danger of pulling chromium 6 into the water supply never reached the public, though it sparked plenty of internal debate, as documents obtained by CityBeat show. A California Department of Health Services engineer worried that at 80 feet down, the top of the three solvent-extraction wells proposed in Glendale were “uncomfortably” close to chromium-laced water swishing roughly five to 10 feet above them.

“Under a long-term pumping program, these [chromium 6] plumes may be drawn in to the extraction wells,” engineer Alan Sorsher wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June 1998; the EPA oversees all Superfund cleanups with input from local agencies. “In summary, the effect of a full scale [VOC] pumping program on the horizontal and vertical movement of the chromium is unknown.”

Asked about that now six-year-old letter, the health department’s drinking water chief, David Spath, said it’s more valid than ever. Computer modeling can only tell you so much.

“In Superfund, you’ve got to be careful about what you do because you can move plumes around,” Spath said. “The unintended consequences of putting wells in one place need to be looked at very closely. The San Gabriel Valley is a good example. They built facilities for VOCs and pulled in perchlorate,” a noxious rocket-fuel booster.

Sorsher was no lone wolf in bringing chromium into the conversation, records indicate. During that same period, Andres Cano, a geologist specializing in hazardous materials with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, weighed in. When superiors sought his opinion on various drilling plans, he recommended immediate monitoring for chromium around existing VOC-extraction wells. He complained his unit had not been previously told that the chemical was present.

The EPA, however, had a suspicion it was. In April 1997, the agency received a study it’d commissioned on the magnitude of the Valley’s chromium 6 groundwater contamination. The report, compiled by consultant CH2M Hill, found chromium ranging as high as 72,000 parts per billion. Most of that sat underneath industrial hotspots on the flanks of the Golden State Freeway through Glendale and Burbank.

The state drinking water standard for total chromium, as a way of limiting chromium 6, is 50 parts per billion. The EPA is not as frightened about it, branding chromium 6 a toxic, not a carcinogen in water.

Today, no one can say whether chromium 6 was sucked into the wells pumping out VOCs perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene. Despite tort-lawsuits, countless public hearings, mothballed wells, and general public frothing about chromium-riddled water, no one can even verify whether chrome 6 was ever really taken into account.

But, in an August 1998 memo, Cano tried to sound the alarm. He believed contingency plans were needed in case the amount of chromium 6 was underestimated.

“This,” he wrote, “will allow an immediate pathway … in the worst case scenario that chromium 6 migrates or is mobilized by pumping.”

Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the Valley’s aquifer for water. In Burbank it supplies almost half of the consumption.

The Superfund filtration plants use aeration and activated charcoal to zap the solvents. Because those methods can’t destroy chromium 6 at minute levels – technologies to neutralize it are just now emerging – the water is blended with purer sources after it’s pumped through the plants on its way to businesses and homes.

Many experts view blending as primitive yet effective, the lowest common denominator solution. You don’t really know what you’re going to get in the final mix.

Lockheed Martin Corp., one of the region’s biggest polluters, was a prime target in the solvent abatement. The company’s aircraft-manufacturing and research operations were headquartered in Burbank for decades until relocation to Georgia in the early-1990s. Lockheed has spent $275 million on Valley soil and groundwater remediation, though the federal government has reimbursed the aerospace conglomerate for about half that tab under Pentagon contracting rules. It also discharged chromium 6 through the air and water. In 1996, those emissions drove a secret $60-million settlement with 1,300 Burbank residents who claimed Lockheed contamination saddled them with cancer, other illnesses or property damage.

Cano noted in his memo that changes in groundwater elevation, when combined with the sucking action of the VOCs wells, needed to be revisited to see if it acted as a chromium magnet. The plumes are moving on a southeasterly bearing, with downhill Glendale getting the brunt of it.

“It appears there are no [subterranean] barriers which would prevent the flow of hexavalent chromium contamination to the extraction wells,” he wrote. “Move the physical locations of the extraction wells away from areas known to contain hexavalent and total chromium concentrations” above safety levels.

He didn’t stop there. He speculated that having VOC-extraction wells sitting amid chromium 6 plumes might violate state regulations requiring that wells be located an “adequate horizontal distance from potential sources of contamination and pollution.” Whether this point was ever investigated is unknown.

In November 1998, Cano penned two additional memos griping there was no still no monitoring plan for the chromium 6. He said CH2M Hill’s conclusion that chrome 6 water wouldn’t be drawn into the wells equated to “firm confidence” without evidence corroborating it. Superfund polluters bankroll much of the cleanup cost.

EPA officials responded to Cano’s warnings by politely discounting them in November 1998. While they agreed there was a “significant, potential threat” created by the discovery of chromium 6, they rebuffed calls to reposition a well in southern Glendale. Federal officials expressed surprise that some Superfund parties were upset by the state’s comments about the chromium wild card, coming as late as they did in the process.

“It’s always the case with groundwater cleanup that you may capture other contaminants you weren’t aware of when you started or only had limited information about,” explains EPA spokesman Francisco Arcaute. “The issue is making sure the treatment system adequately deals with the contaminants and your end water is safe. I don’t think anybody knew the full extent of the chrome 6 problem back then.”

The head of Glendale’s water unit is new on the job, and said last week he didn’t know about the VOC-chromium quandary. Of all the cities with chromium 6 blight, Glendale has acted the most aggressively. From September 2000 through February 2002, it dumped millions of gallons of chromium-tainted water into the Los Angeles River in a tense showdown with water regulators. Eventually, the city agreed to accept aquifer water with less than 6 parts per billion of chrome.

Asked about Cano’s warnings, Burbank’s general manager felt they were overblown.

“The cleanup is evolving and volatile, and the extent and characterization of chromium was not known as much as other stuff,” Fred Lantz says. “The California Department of Health Services and EPA worked arm in arm.” The Department of Toxics is “kind of on a different page. There are rogues in there.”

Attempts to interview Cano directly were unsuccessful.

Mel Blevins, the court-appointed “watermaster” who oversaw the upper Los Angeles River area for 23 years, said fighting pollution means making choices. The feds had to stop the analysis at some juncture and get cracking.

“The EPA’s focus was to remove mass quantities of VOCs, so they wouldn’t allow the wells to be drilled too deep,” said Blevins, now a consultant. “These wells were located in a place to be effective. All these [contaminants] are together. Even now, I don’t know where you’d drill differently.”

Still, Blevins added, “I don’t feel like the watermaster’s office was adequately informed of what the Department of Toxic Substance Controls was concerned about. A lot of the cities didn’t know about it, either. It would have been helpful.”

Environmental activist Joseph Lyou believes that if state agencies had more say, tap water might be better off.

“Cano predicted with frightening accuracy exactly what was going to happen” said Lyou, executive director of the California Environmental Rights Alliance, a small, L.A.-based non-profit. “The EPA backed itself into a corner by agreeing to start the [VOC] remediation pumping by a certain date. It seems pretty clear that the pumping resulted in the lateral movement of contaminants.”

Federal officials dispute they buffaloed anybody, saying Superfund is a transparent process heavy on outsider input.

In 1998, Blevins was one of the first to sound warnings about leaching chromium. He forecast that the plumes would grow to such high concentrations they would ultimately close dozens of production wells, forcing the importation of more expensive supplies. The Regional Water Quality Control Board has been investigating polluters ever since, and have issued eight cleanup and abatement orders. There have been no prosecutions.

A Lockheed representative denied the notion that officials were blindsided by the chromium detections after the VOC-plants shot up.
“All parties were aware that chromium would potentially be present in the extractions wells,” said spokeswoman Gail Rymer. “Further questions regarding the Superfund process should be directed to the federal EPA.”

Copyright Chip Jacobs