Veto of Funds for Tank Leak Study Upheld

Times Staff Writer

The state Senate this week failed to override Gov. George Deukmejian's veto of funds that would have stepped up an investigation of underground storage tanks suspected of leaking chemicals and solvents into soil and ground water in the San Gabriel Valley.

The Senate vote was 23 to 17, four votes short of the 27 needed to override. Funds to accelerate a program to find leaks in underground tanks were part of $10.6 million in water quality funds deleted from the budget by the governor.

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), who has pushed for tank cleanup in the San Gabriel Valley, said the program has been moving much too slowly, given the fact that there is a "very high probability" that leaking storage tanks are responsible for much of the area's ground water contamination.

Despite the veto of the increased funding, however, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency, is preparing an order that will require 31 industrial companies in the San Gabriel Valley to conduct tests and install monitoring systems to prove that their underground storage tanks are not leaking chemicals or solvents into soil and ground water.

Expensive Cleanup

The state order, which will be contained in letters mailed to the companies within the next month, is the first step in what could become an expensive cleanup effort for the companies and could pinpoint sources of water contamination that have led to the closure of more than 60 wells in the valley since 1979.

Robert Ghirelli, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the companies were targeted because of the chemicals and solvents they have stored and the age and composition of their tanks. Some of the tanks have held the sort of compounds, such as trichloroethylene (TCE), that have seeped into wells, making the water unsafe to drink because of long-term cancer risks. Ghirelli said that if this investigation follows the pattern of a similar effort in the San Fernando Valley, leaks will be found in half the tanks.

Ghirelli estimated that there are 40,000 underground tanks in Los Angeles County. About 75% contain gasoline or diesel fuel, but the leak detection effort is focusing primarily on the remaining 25%, which contain industrial chemicals and solvents. State officials said they do not have firm estimates on the number of tanks in the San Gabriel Valley.

The tanks targeted for investigation are in Azusa, Baldwin Park, Duarte, Irwindale, El Monte and South El Monte. The water quality control board staff identified 193 high-risk tanks belonging to 31 companies after reviewing questionnaires returned by 550 companies in the six cities.

Others to Be Affected

Ghirelli said the six cities are the first to be surveyed in the San Gabriel Valley under a state and local government effort to catalog tanks, detect leaks and clean up spills. Eventually, all tank owners will be asked to undertake the kind of leak detection and monitoring program being required now for the high-risk tanks.

There were no standards for the design, construction and installation of tanks and no requirement to monitor them for leaks until the Legislature passed two laws in 1983. One required owners to register their tanks with the state and the other set up a program for the state to establish standards for new tanks, authorize local governments to issue permits and require monitoring of tanks to detect leaks.

But the legislation has not been fully implemented.

State and local officials say that many tank owners are still unaware of the legislation and have failed to register their tanks. The state has yet to adopt regulations governing tanks, and the county is not yet issuing tank permits, even though its deadline to complete the task was July 1. It also is not yet clear whether state or local agencies are responsible for overseeing leak cleanups.

Explanation of Veto

The Legislature put $7.6 million in the 1985-86 state budget to step up the program by allowing regional water quality boards to hire 167 new employees, including 25 in the Los Angeles region, but Duekmejian vetoed the budget increase. In a message explaining his decision, the governor said the enlarged budget would have shifted responsibility for all cleanup of leaking tanks from local government to the state and "this type of major policy change should be addressed through specific legislation and not the budget bill."

Tanner, who heads the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, said she found the governor's explanation mystifying "because it is my understanding that most local agencies do not have either the resources or the expertise to clean up leaking underground storage tanks. Who does the governor think is going to take care of this problem?"

Bob Taylor, the governor's deputy press secretary, said Deukmejian has increased the number of employees working on the tank program and believes "we have sufficient funding and staffing."

Ghirelli said the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which serves Los Angeles and Ventura counties, is increasing the number of employees on the tank program to 10 from seven but conceded that it will take years to complete the leak detection and cleanup work. He said an army of 331 employees would be needed to do the whole job in a year, and it would be impossible to find that many qualified people to hire and train even if the money were available.

Monitoring Deadline

Carl Sjoberg, who runs the underground tank program for the county Department of Public Works, said the 1983 state legislation required tank owners to have monitoring systems installed by July 1, but the deadline proved to be impractical and there is no penalty for missing it. Legislation pending in Sacramento would give local governments until March, 1986, to approve monitoring plans and issue permits and would set September, 1986, as the deadline to have monitoring systems in place.

Sjoberg said the current law "is very fuzzy on who's supposed to do what."

Cities have the option of issuing tank permits or letting the county handle it. A few cities have their own regulations in place; the county adopted a set of guidelines last fall, and the state is in the process of adopting regulations that will apply to cities and counties that do not have their own.

Sjoberg said the permit process is confusing to tank owners because often they don't know whether they are supposed to apply to the county or city government for a permit. And some cities have not yet decided whether to issue permits or leave the responsibility with the county.

Some Tanks Removed

Sjoberg estimated that 1,000 tanks in the county have been pulled out of the ground by owners because of the cost of complying with the new regulations. But, closure requires a permit, too, and tanks must be inspected by the county for leaks when they are removed.

Ghirelli said the cost of cleaning up a site where a tank has leaked can run into many thousands of dollars. One solvent refining company in Gardena, he said, has spent $300,000 and is still investigating the scope of a leak.

Hank Yacoub, supervising engineer for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the 31 San Gabriel Valley companies who have been identified as owning high-risk tanks will be required to submit leak detection plans. In most cases, he said, that will involve drilling around tanks to determine if the soil is contaminated.

If leaks are detected, Yacoub said, the next step will be to determine how far the chemicals and solvents have gone and whether ground water has been invaded. Property owners are responsible for hiring geologists and other experts to detect leaks and carry out cleanup programs. The role of government, Yacoub said, is merely to approve leak detection plans and supervise the cleanup.

TCE was first discovered in a well in Irwindale in 1979. Since then, TCE and other compounds such as perchloroethylene (PCE) and carbon tetrachloride (CTC) have been found at levels high enough to require closure of more than 60 of the 400 wells in the main San Gabriel water basin.

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