State Orders More Tests on Tainted Well Water

Times Staff Writer

The state Department of Health Services has ordered the city of Glendale and the Crescenta Valley County Water District to significantly expand their testing for potentially harmful pollutants in well water.

The move came after statewide tests this summer found traces of several suspected cancer-causing substances in well water from the Verdugo basin, an underground water supply shared by Glendale and Crescenta Valley. However, officials stress that almost all of those pollutants were found in amounts far below state advisory limits. They added that the pollutants are much further reduced by treatment and by constant blending of the well water with surface reservoir supplies from the Metropolitan Water District.

Glendale's director of water services, Steve Meyerhofer, said he disagreed with the state order for increased testing because the pollution levels were so low. Some of the chemicals could not even be measured in laboratory samples, he said, and merely showed up as what he described as "blips" on the sophisticated monitors. That could have been caused by pollutants in the air, not the water, he said.

"We tried to discuss this with them. But we couldn't argue them out of it," Meyerhofer said, referring to state health officials.

Monitoring Numbers

Gary Yamamoto, a senior district engineer with the state Health Services Department, conceded that most of the pollutants' levels were very low. But he said he wants to be certain that the levels do not increase.

"We want to get some kind of history on this," he explained. "We will re-evaluate things at the end of the year. If the numbers are consistently low, we may decrease the monitoring. If the numbers show up really high, we might ask for accelerated testings."

Meyerhofer said he may have to ask the Glendale City Council for more money in his budget to help pay the $5,000 he estimates the added tests will cost this year.

Glendale's bill probably will go higher if, as expected, the state also issues an order for extra tests of wells in the San Fernando basin, shared by Glendale, Burbank, and Los Angeles. Yamamoto said he has not figured out the extent of additional testing in the San Fernando basin but is sure some will be required.

4 Wells Closed Due

Glendale gets about 20% of its water from wells and the rest from the Metropolitan Water District. Glendale runs only five of its nine so-called Grandview wells in the San Fernando basin, near Griffith Park. The other four are closed because their water exceeds state advisory limits for trichloroethylene, or TCE, an industrial solvent that has caused cancer in laboratory animals exposed to large doses but has not been proved to be a human carcinogen.

Glendale's three other wells, known as the Glorietta wells, are in the Verdugo basin and are all operating. The city's Glorietta wells sometimes have exceeded the state advisory level for a related substance, perchloroethylene, or PCE, over the past few years. But blending with other waters reduces that level sharply before it reaches consumers.

Robert Argenio, general manager of Crescenta Valley County Water District, which serves La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge, said he thought the results of the summer tests in the Verdugo basin "looked pretty good to us." But he said he has not tried to convince the state that increased monitoring is unnecessary. "The health department has its job to do and so do we. We will comply in every detail with the law and the requirements," he said.

Argenio said he could not estimate his utility's share of the cost of extra testing until he discusses details with the state.

Crescenta Valley has 10 wells in the Verdugo basin that operate according to demand; none are closed because of pollution. About half the utility's water comes from wells and the rest from MWD, Argenio said.

In addition to the blending with MWD water, levels of some pollutants in Crescenta Valley water are reduced significantly by treatment at aeration towers, he said.

All water utilities test frequently for certain bacterial and chemical contamination of well and reservoir water. But, with increasing public concern about ground-water pollution from industrial and agricultural chemicals, the state Legislature passed a bill in 1983 requiring one-time statewide testing by August of this year for 40 chemicals, including many not regularly monitored. That testing requirement is commonly referred to as AB 1803, after the Assembly bill.

4 Sites Chosen

In the Verdugo basin, state officials chose four sites for AB 1803 tests: Glendale's Glorietta Well No. 4; Crescenta Valley's Mills Well No. 5 and Glenwood Well No. 12; and Glendale's so-called Verdugo Pickup, an unused, underground natural channel at the foot of the basin near Glendale Community College.

According to a report filed with the state, the Verdugo basin testing detected the presence of nine chemical compounds thought to originate from either industrial production or leakage from sewage treatment. Those include chloroform, 1,2-dichlorobenzene and 1,1-dichloroethane--solvents suspected of causing cancer or long-term health problems to people chronically exposed to large amounts.

For about half of the chemicals found, the levels were too low to be measured. And, for all but two of the rest, the amounts were at levels at least 50 times lower than the state limits.

The testing found levels of PCE ranging from 0.9 parts per billion in the Verdugo Pickup to 6.2 ppb in the Glenwood well. The state advisory level for PCE is 4 ppb. Officials cite estimates that, if a person drank two quarts of water a day containing 4 ppb of PCE for 70 years, he would have only a one-in-a-million greater chance of contracting cancer. Scientists say, however, that the chemicals can interact to produce a greater risk.

Under Glendale's monthly testing of its Glorietta wells for PCE, levels have averaged 6.3 ppb from June through September, according to lab reports filed with the state.

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