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EPA May Help Fund Search for Sources of Tainted Water

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board will receive more than $2 million in federal funds to accelerate its search for sources of ground-water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley if a proposed agreement is approved by state and federal officials.

The agreement, drafted by the regional board in consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would channel EPA funds to the lagging effort to find water polluters.

San Gabriel Valley water officials had been so dismayed by the slow pace of the investigation of contaminated wells that three months ago they proposed the creation of a valleywide agency to manage the cleanup of contaminated ground water and push the pollution investigation.

Layer of Bureaucracy

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But Reginald A. Stone, senior vice president of Suburban Water Systems and head of the committee that proposed the valleywide water authority, said the proposal is being withdrawn.

He said water officials believe the pollution investigation will be accelerated by federal funds and are concerned that creation of a water authority would simply add another layer of bureaucracy.

The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to act Oct. 20 on an agreement that would give the regional board $544,000 in federal funds to investigate polluted wells in the San Gabriel Valley next year and about $800,000 in each of the following two years. The money would be used by the regional board to hire investigators to look for pollution sources near contaminated wells.

Dual Investigation

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There is widespread contamination of ground water in the Main San Gabriel Basin, which supplies 90% of the water to 1 million San Gabriel Valley residents. The fact that industrial solvents, such as trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, had seeped into wells was first detected in 1979, but hardly any of the water has been cleaned up and authorities say they cannot be sure that the contamination has been stopped.

The EPA and the regional water board have been working to find sources of ground-water contamination, but their efforts have been hampered by a shortage of manpower and money.

The EPA has investigated potential sources of contamination of polluted wells in Irwindale, Baldwin Park and Azusa, while the regional board has concentrated on El Monte, La Puente, the City of Industry and Pomona.

Staff Increase

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Jon Bishop, regional board associate engineer and coordinator of the San Gabriel project, said the proposed agreement with the EPA will enable his agency to broaden the effort to investigate contaminated wells throughout the San Gabriel Valley. The current staff of five working on the project would be increased by four employees next year and six the following year.

Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the regional board, said the project is being planned for three years, but it is uncertain whether every possible source of ground-water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley can be investigated in that time.

“Our goal is to sweep the basin (in three years), but we have to consider how quickly we can get the staff on board,” he said.

Progress will be analyzed at the end of every year. The regional board has said that sources of contamination include leaks from chemical storage tanks and landfills and sloppy handling of industrial chemicals. Many companies that have allowed chemicals to seep into the ground have been ordered to investigate contamination and undertake cleanup efforts, but no company has yet been charged with responsibility for polluting the ground-water basin.

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Prosecution Difficult

EPA officials have said they eventually hope to collect part of the cost of the cleanup, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, from companies and individuals who are responsible. But the pollution is so widespread and stretches back so many years that authorities have conceded that many of the culprits will never be identified.

The Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster, which regulates pumping of ground water, appointed a Basin Water Quality Management Committee after EPA officials said earlier this year that the water-contamination problem is so large and complicated and the cleanup will be so prolonged that the EPA will require state and local participation to handle it.

Fragmented Efforts

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The committee had proposed formation of a San Gabriel Valley ground-water quality authority to supplement and accelerate EPA and state efforts. The proposal was made in a 34-page report submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board at a hearing in El Monte in June.

The hearing was called to help the state board find out what is being done to clean up the basin, which has one-fourth of its water wells contaminated, 70 of them so badly that they cannot meet state and federal water quality standards.

Attorney Arthur Kidman, representing the watermaster committee, told the state board that cleanup efforts have been fragmented, slow and ineffective, and that the committee had preliminarily concluded that the problem required the formation of a regional authority.

The staff of the state water board picked up the proposal and incorporated it in a draft resolution that it is circulating to water agencies. The proposed resolution, which sets out a strategy for dealing with ground-water contamination in the San Gabriel Valley, will be discussed by the state board at a workshop meeting in Sacramento Oct. 6.

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Plant Construction

Robert G. Berlien, assistant secretary of the watermaster, said he has written to the state board asking it to change the resolution to omit any reference to a water quality authority. Buck Taylor, an attorney for the state board, said the resolution will be revised as comments are received from agencies involved in the San Gabriel Valley cleanup.

The state board is the parent of the regional water board but has no authority over other agencies. Taylor said that it is unlikely the state board will attempt to intervene in the cleanup as long as other agencies are working together in harmony and making progress. The proposed resolution sets out findings from the state board’s hearing in June and outlines what each agency should be doing to reduce contamination.

EPA officials have said the cleanup will require construction of a number of plants to purify polluted ground water. The EPA will provide 90% of the cost of building the plants and 90% of the cost of operating them for 10 years.

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Funding Uncertain

Local water officials are hoping that the state will provide the remaining 10%, but state funding is uncertain. In addition, since the cleanup is expected to take more than 10 years, an agency will be needed to operate the plants and fund their operation and maintenance after 10 years.

One reason for proposing a San Gabriel Valley ground-water authority was to provide an agency to manage the treatment plants and raise revenue to cover the cost.

But local water officials, including Stone and Berlien, said they now believe that existing agencies, such as the San Gabriel Valley and Upper San Gabriel Valley municipal water districts and the watermaster, could handle these tasks, perhaps through some kind of joint powers arrangement.

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Joint Powers Agreements

Stone said a committee of water producers, headed by Thomas Shollenberger, general manager of Alhambra’s water department, has been asked to study the problem and recommend what needs to be done locally and how it could be financed.

Shollenberger said his committee is looking at joint powers agreements, a pumping fee on water producers and other alternatives. He said the original proposal for a water quality authority has not been entirely ruled out but is not now being considered.


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