Tainted Well's Recovery Not Really Good News

Times Staff Writer

Three years ago, when experts tested the first of 90 wells in the San Gabriel Valley that have been tainted by industrial pollution, they found a virtual chemical cocktail.

Tests at the well in Irwindale revealed large shots of perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) as well as liberal dashes of chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and other substances suspected of being weak carcinogens.

Not the kinds of things people want to find in their drinking water.

But now the well is producing water that is almost fit to drink.

Federal, state and local officials are baffled about just how and why that happened. They say the well's recovery is not a sign of progress but an accident. It just means the contamination has probably moved elsewhere.

May Take $800 Million

Equally confusing is the broader question of how to eliminate the ground water pollution that permeates the San Gabriel Valley. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which put the San Gabriel Valley on its Superfund list in 1984, has estimated that it may take $800 million and more than 50 years of work to clean up the water.

The problems at the Irwindale well illustrate the difficulties and frustrations facing those who want to clean up the ground water.

Consider, for example, that:

Officials have known that the Irwindale well has been polluted for more than eight years, but little has been done beyond shutting the well down.

The identity of the polluter remains a mystery despite years of investigation.

A $390,000 system has been installed at a nearby well to remove ground water pollutants but is seldom used because of the operational expense.

Failure to remove pollutants has allowed the contamination to spread.

EPA officials say the problem is enormous because the contaminants are moving deep below the surface in large "plumes" within a huge water basin that stretches from Alhambra to La Verne and is the primary source of water for 1 million people.

Thus far, water companies have kept drinking water safe by drilling deeper wells in unpolluted parts of the basin and by blending slightly polluted water with purer water to meet drinking-water standards.

The problem surfaced more than eight years ago when technicians from Aerojet Electrosystems Co. in Azusa tested water at the Irwindale well on Morada Street. The 600-foot well was dug in 1961. The company ran the tests after its parent company, Aerojet-General Corp., had come under fire for contaminating soil and ground water with TCE at its plant at Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento. The amount of TCE in the Irwindale well, called the Morada well because of its location, was 360 times greater than the state's TCE limit. Aerojet is among a number of companies that EPA has investigated as potential sources of ground water contamination, but no formal accusations have ever been made against Aerojet or any other company.

Agency Notified

Hank Yacoub, chief of the toxins section of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Aerojet notified his agency, which oversees the protection of ground water, about the Morada well on Dec. 23, 1979.

No one had ever tested local wells for TCE before, Yacoub said, and the situation was so novel that his first reaction was to look up TCE in a chemistry book.

The Morada finding prompted state health officials to order tests of other wells throughout the San Gabriel Valley, and then throughout the county as more TCE was found. By April, 1980, the Morada well and 36 others in the San Gabriel Valley had been shut down because their water contained more than 5 ppb or parts per billion of TCE.

A part per billion is the equivalent of one drop in a large swimming pool. State and federal officials limit the amount of TCE permitted in water to 5 ppb on the theory that long-term exposure at that level presents a cancer risk of no more than 1 in 1 million.

The Aerojet test showed that TCE in the Morada well had reached the extraordinary level of 1,800 ppb.

Later authorities began testing water for other compounds, such as PCE, which is widely used in dry cleaning.

Surprising Results

Stan Yarbrough, general manager of the Valley County Water District, which owns the Morada well, said the district did not test the well again until recently and then obtained surprising results. Tests in March and April showed a dramatic drop in the strength of all contaminants.

But Yarbrough said the contaminants could easily reappear in subsequent tests or could be moving toward other wells.

The good news, Yarbrough said, is that the water district's 10,500 customers in Baldwin Park, Irwindale and neighboring cities have continued to receive pure water from the district's four uncontaminated wells.

But that is part of the problem, too, because the water district has no incentive to pump and treat polluted water while it has other wells that are clean. Yarbrough said treating polluted water costs money, which raises water rates.

Waiting for EPA

So instead of attacking the problem themselves, the Valley County Water District and other public and private water agencies with polluted wells have been waiting for the EPA to do the overall job, while making sure that their own water supplies stay pure by digging new, deeper wells in unpolluted areas.

It has taken the EPA more than four years to assess the problem, and the agency is only now beginning to propose solutions, warning at the same time that it does not have the resources to do all the work itself.

Local water officials have frequently accused the EPA of moving too slowly, but Yarbrough said he can understand the agency's caution when the cleanup price tag is hundreds of millions of dollars. "You don't want to spend the first $400 million and find you've gone in the wrong direction," he said.

Neil Ziemba, who manages the EPA project, said the agency is considering the construction of treatment systems to keep clean water flowing to customers and to stop the spread of pollution.

But while treatment systems are being built, he said, efforts must be undertaken to find those who are responsible for the pollution so that they can be ordered to help pay the cleanup cost.

Investigations Begun

Both the EPA and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board have undertaken investigations to find companies that have disposed of TCE and other compounds illegally.

Yacoub said that as soon as TCE was found in the Morada well in 1979, the regional water board began looking for sources of pollution in Azusa, Irwindale and Baldwin Park. It was an unsophisticated investigation by today's standards, he said. Inspectors would walk into factories and ask managers and workers if they used TCE as a cleaning solvent and how they disposed of the waste.

Yacoub said he hurriedly completed an investigative report in early 1980 saying that TCE could have leaked into the ground from numerous sources and that the problem probably occurred over many years from poor waste disposal practices. Those conclusions are still valid, Yacoub said, but he finds it embarrassing that his investigation overlooked a prime culprit--leaks of chemicals stored in underground tanks.

Although the initial investigation failed to pinpoint responsibility for pollution of the Morada well, Yacoub said, inspectors did issue orders that required companies near the well to clean up contaminated soil and improve their handling of chemicals and toxic waste.

Later the EPA took over the search for pollution sources in Azusa, Baldwin Park and Irwindale, and the work is continuing today. Hundreds of companies that may have used TCE and related compounds have been surveyed, and old photographs of the area have been studied for clues.

List Narrowed

Ziemba said the list of prime suspects has narrowed to roughly 10 to 15, and two firms will receive high priority in further investigations this year that could lead to enforcement actions.

The search is urgent, Ziemba said, because a statute of limitations gives officials only six years after a treatment plant opens to identify those who caused the pollution and bill them for the cleanup work.

Earlier this year, EPA officials said they would cut back on the search for pollution sources to reduce the workload of its contractor for the project, CH2M Hill. But Ziemba said a new contractor will take over so that a slowdown can be averted. Nevertheless, he said, the EPA does not have the resources to mount a search throughout the San Gabriel Valley for sources of ground water contamination and has asked the state to join in the task.

The EPA has produced a series of cost estimates for cleaning up the entire San Gabriel basin. Depending on the strategy employed, the cost could amount to $800 million or more.

The only treatment system built and financed so far by the EPA is one that was installed by the Valley County Water District at its well on Lante Avenue, near Arrow Highway, a few blocks from the Morada well.

Early Effort

James Van Wagner, who retired as manager of the Valley County Water District last year, said there was an early effort to purify water from the Morada well by spraying it into the air to evaporate TCE. But, he said, the district soon gave up on the Morada well because its water also contained an excessive amount of minerals and other dissolved solids. Even if the organic compounds could have been removed, the water quality would have been comparatively low.

So when the water district decided to build a system to remove ground water toxins, it chose the nearby Lante well, which also was heavily polluted. The EPA contributed $340,000 and the district $55,000 to build an air stripping tower.

The tower, which resembles a rocket ready for launch, is about 70 feet high and sits next to a 40-foot-high water tank. Water is piped to the top of the tower and dropped 35 feet through a large tube as air is forced upward. The tube is packed with small pieces of plastic that are designed to spread the surface of the water to increase aeration. The process transfers TCE and other volatile organic compounds from the water to the air.

Yarbrough said the tower, which was built in 1983, removes 99.5% of TCE and other organic compounds. But the system is used only as a backup when water demand is heavy because it costs more to treat polluted water than to pump from clean wells, he said. The Lante well and the aeration tower were operated only 18 days last year.

Likely to Remain Pure

The water district draws most of its water from four wells south of Santa Fe Dam, near the San Gabriel River. Yarbrough said only one of these wells has ever shown a trace of contamination. He said they are likely to remain pure because they are near the river, which is constantly replenished with fresh water.

Four of the district's 10 wells, including Morada, are never used because of pollution, and two others, Lante and a well on Paddy Lane, are used sparingly. The Paddy Lane well is polluted, but the levels are low enough so that simply spraying the water into the air removes enough contamination through evaporation to meet drinking-water standards.

Van Wagner, who was general manager when the tower was built, said he suggested to the EPA five years ago that it subsidize day-to-day operational costs so that the Lante well could be run all the time to help clean up the ground water basin.

If the plan had been adopted, he said, "they probably could have removed five or 10 barrels of solvent by now." Instead, he said, EPA told him that it would study the proposal, and he has "no doubt it will be under study 10 years from now."

Van Wagner added: "I get so frustrated over these things that that is one of the reasons I retired."

Research Project

Ziemba conceded that operation of the Lante tower could remove pollutants, but he said the EPA's interest in it was as a research project. Construction was funded through the EPA's research office and not from the Superfund cleanup, he noted. Scientists have used the Lante tower to study the impact of air stripping towers on air pollution.

When the EPA installs other air stripping towers or other treatment systems, Ziemba said, it will insist that water be pumped all the time.

Ziemba said the EPA will pay 90% of the cost of building treatment systems and operating them for 10 years. But, he said, the problems of financing long-term maintenance and operation and overproduction from round-the-clock pumping must still be resolved.

The EPA will begin construction this year on a $1.1-million water treatment system for the Richwood Mutual Water Co. in El Monte.

Both Rep. David Dreier (R-Covina) and Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) have written to the EPA's top administrator demanding that the EPA fully fund the cleanup effort and not put any of the burden on water customers through higher rates. The agency responded with a noncommittal reply.

Yarbrough said operating an air stripping tower adds about 16 cents to the cost of delivering every 1,000 gallons of water.

Even if the Valley County Water District wanted to run the Lante well constantly, Yarbrough noted, there is an obstacle imposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which recently adopted restrictions on air stripping towers to limit emission of pollutants.

Yarbrough said it would cost $100,000 to install a carbon system to trap pollutants so that they are not emitted into the air after being removed from the water. He said an Air Quality Management District study shows that pollution controls would raise the cost of water treatment from 16 cents to 25 cents for each 1,000 gallons.

Instead of installing the controls, he said, his district plans to operate its air stripping tower only a few hours at a time to keep below the daily limit on air emissions.

The Lante well, like the Morada well, has shown a reduction in TCE contamination in tests this year. The amount of TCE was 784 ppb in 1984 but fell to as low as 23 ppb in February before climbing back to 260 ppb last month.

The Morada well had 440 ppb of TCE in 1985 but only 5.8 in March and 26 in April. The amount of PCE fell from 100 ppb in 1985 to 6.5 last month. The state limit is 4 ppb.

Results Could Change

Yarbrough said pollutants could have been carried away from the Morada well by the natural movement of ground water or could be lurking just beyond the well's range when it pumps only a small amount of water, as it did for test samples in March and April. If the well was put back in production and began drawing water from a larger area, he said, the test results could change. In any event, he said, there are no plans to reopen the well.

While contamination seems to have declined at the Lante and Morada wells, it has increased at the well on Paddy Lane.

Ziemba said precise measurements of volatile organic compounds in the parts-per-billion range are so difficult that variations are common, and it is often impossible to discern any real trend.

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