Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials were aware of increasing evidence that a suspected carcinogen had tainted drinking water supplies but failed to sound a public warning, according to two City Council members.

DWP officials served two years on a state and local task force studying the threat posed by the chemical chromium 6, but didn’t share key findings with the council, said Los Angeles City Council members Laura Chick and Joel Wachs.

Chromium 6, a byproduct of the metal-plating process, is a suspected carcinogen. The state Department of Health Services is currently studying a proposal to reduce allowable levels of chromium in drinking water as a means of reducing chromium 6.

“The DWP, in particular, is a watchdog agency regarding water and water quality,” Chick said. “It should be coming forward on its own initiative, wanting to share and disseminate information about concerns regarding our drinking water.”

Added Wachs: “They’ve dismissed information as insignificant that highly respected people say has been a cause for alarm. But they have been derelict in their approach. These testing results are cause for concern and they shouldn’t keep it from people.”

DWP General Manager S. David Freeman did not dispute the criticism.

“If the council feels we should have reported it earlier, they’re right,” Freeman said. “We don’t argue with the council people. We found traces of chromium 6 with our super-duper detection equipment and we reported it to the Health Department. With the benefit of hindsight, anything that becomes controversial should have been reported.”

Wachs was alerted to the proposed chromium standard in an October 1998 letter from Mel Blevins, the court-appointed water master overseeing ground water pumping rights in the San Fernando Valley. The Valley wells are a major source of drinking water for the cities of Los Angeles, Burbank and San Fernando.

As a result, Blevins was called before a council committee in November 1998. But Blevins and DWP officials told the committee the water was safe, and that shutting down the wells would raise the cost of water by forcing the city to import more.

Chromium Levels May Rise in Future

The committee asked for more information, and a DWP survey of 10 Valley wells, reported in January 1999, found that chromium 6 was detected in nine wells, but only two exceeded the proposed state limit of 2.5 parts per billion of chromium.

Additional testing in June 1999 showed 13 out of 14 DWP wells and three imported water sources contained chromium 6 varying from trace amounts to 4.7 parts per billion, or nearly double the 2.5 ppb concentration found earlier, said Pankaj Parekh, the DWP’s manager of regulatory compliance.

In a related development, officials with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board concluded in March that 205 industrial sites in Glendale, Burbank and Los Angeles could have soil contaminated by chromium 6.

Meanwhile, Freeman said this week that the DWP closed a pair of drinking water wells last month because of high concentrations of chromium, which typically indicates high chromium 6 levels.

Gary Yamamoto, chief of technical programs for the California Department of Health Services, said one well in Burbank tested below the state chromium standard in 1998 but exceeded it in tests conducted in September 1999. In Glendale, a well also tested above the state’s maximum contaminant level for chromium as recently as February, he said.

“The problem is, in a year or two, evidence shows more of those wells will exceed the drinking water standard [for chromium],” Yamamoto said.

Yamamoto said more testing is needed, but attributed the possible cause for the rise in chromium levels to additional industrial contaminants in the water or the movement of underground plumes of contamination.

Blevins maintains that, while there is evidence chromium 6 can cause cancer when inhaled, there isn’t enough data to prove chromium 6 is a health threat when consumed in water. He said there was no need to alert city officials as more chromium information was gathered over the past two years.

“There was nothing to report that alarmed us,” Blevins said. “If the [chromium 6] values had been higher, I would have said we needed to report it. Nothing jumped out … there was never a responsibility given to me to report back to the [council subcommittee]. The purpose of the task force is not to be a political animal.”

But Wachs says he sides with health officials who say chromium 6 poses a health threat and that it should not be present in the water at all.

Wachs said DWP officials should have passed on 18 months’ worth of test results and communications showing chromium 6 had turned up in more water wells, including ones operated by the DWP and the Burbank and Glendale water systems.

The handling of the chromium 6 issue by the Department of Water and Power and other agencies is scheduled to be addressed today by the City Council.

Testing Begins at County Facilities

The Times reported last month that a 1998 proposal to cut allowable amounts of chromium in water–in order to reduce levels of chromium 6–was still being studied by state officials, who said it may take another five years to implement a tougher standard.

In response, the state Legislature passed SB 2127, requiring an accelerated review of the Valley’s chromium-tainted water. The bill now sits on Gov. Davis’ desk. Two legislators, state Sens. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) have called for hearings.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County officials have begun testing tap water for chromium 6 in 100 county facilities, including hospitals and fire stations, said Wasfy Shindy, director of the county’s environmental toxicology lab. The study, which will include 20 test sites in each of the five supervisorial districts, was ordered by the Board of Supervisors last week.


Blankstein is a Times staff writer and Jacobs is a freelance writer