Water Customers May Be Billed for Part of Cleanup

Times Staff Writer

San Gabriel Valley residents would have to help pay for the operation of costly treatment plants to clean up the area’s polluted ground water under a newly disclosed state policy.

State officials said the state will help the federal government build the plants but has no money to operate them.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning construction of a series of treatment plants to remove volatile organic chemicals, such as trichloroethylene (TCE), which have seeped into ground water and forced the closure of dozens of San Gabriel Valley wells. The federal government will pay 90% of the construction cost and the state will pay the remainder. The cleanup will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The federal government will pay 90% of the cost of running the plants for 10 years. Local water officials want the state to pay the remaining 10% for the first decade and pick up all the operating costs thereafter, a period that could reach 30 years or more.


But Alex Cunningham, chief deputy director of the state Department of Health Service’s toxics division, said in a letter to a local water agency that the state does not have the money to pay for operation and maintenance of treatment plants.

San Bernardino Agreement

In cleanups elsewhere, Cunningham said, the state has persuaded local agencies to pay the operating costs and “that is a policy that we wish to continue, in general.”

Andy Burow, state senior waste management engineer, said that in San Bernardino, that city has agreed to pay the operating costs of water treatment systems built by the state, which is more than $650,000 annually.


Burow noted that local agencies can try to recover their expenses by suing individuals or companies that caused the pollution. But, so far in the San Gabriel Valley, the sources of the ground-water contamination have not been determined, although the State Water Resources Control Board last week approved an agreement with the EPA that will provide more than $2 million for a 3-year search for polluters.

Robert Berlien, general manager of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, said the operating costs in the San Gabriel Valley cleanup could reach tens of millions of dollars a year.

The cost figures are uncertain because the EPA has not determined how many treatment plants are needed or where they should be built.

The EPA is building a $1.3-million treatment system for the Richwood Mutual Water Co. in El Monte and has announced plans to build a $5.4-million treatment plant at Whittier Narrows to serve customers of Suburban Water Systems. But this is merely the start of a cleanup program that federal officials say will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The EPA and the state will pay for operating the Richwood system for 20 years, but it is not yet clear how the Whittier Narrows system will be financed. EPA estimates the annual operating costs at $93,000 for Richwood and $809,000 for Whittier Narrows.

Prospect Called Unfair

The Whittier Narrows plant will purify water for 17,000 customers of Suburban Water Systems in the Whittier area, but Reginald A. Stone, Suburban senior vice president, said it would be unfair to force his customers to pay for the treatment system. His customers did not pollute the ground water, and, he noted, the cleanup will benefit the entire region, stopping the spread of contamination.

Phil Bobel, chief of the EPA’s Superfund remedial branch, said the question of who will pay for operational costs must be resolved, but the problem will not affect the Whittier Narrows project immediately. Design of the system will take most of next year, Bobel said, and another year will be required for construction before the plant goes into operation.


The Cunningham letter stating that the state does not have money to pay for operation of water treatment systems was a response to a letter from the Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster, which controls pumping of ground water. The agency asked the state to outline its commitment to the San Gabriel Valley ground-water cleanup project.

The local water board will discuss the state’s response at its Nov. 2 meeting. An agency official said one possibility is to seek legislation to force the state to pay for cleanup costs not covered by the EPA.

Meanwhile, the state water board last week approved a resolution calling for joint action by federal, state and local agencies to clean up ground water in the San Gabriel Valley, but the resolution did not spell out how treatment systems should be financed.