'Aghast' at Lack of Progress : Torres Sets Hearing on Water Cleanup

Times Staff Writer

Dismayed by the slow pace of efforts to clean up contaminated ground water in the San Gabriel Valley, Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente) will conduct a full-scale congressional hearing on the issue June 5 at Baldwin Park City Hall.

"I'm aghast that after 10 years and $5 million spent on studies, (government efforts) have not produced a drop of clean water," Torres said.

The congressman, who has called the hearing as chairman of the Small Business Committee's subcommittee on environment and labor, said he has asked Daniel McGovern, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to explain the EPA's strategy for protecting the area's water supply.

Torres said the San Gabriel Valley has "the largest known ground-water contamination problem in the United States." And yet, he said, it is not at all clear what sort of plan EPA has formulated to attack this problem or whether there is any hope of finding the polluters and making them pay for the cleanup.

About 1 million people in the San Gabriel Valley depend on the Main San Gabriel Basin for their water. More than one-fourth of the 400 wells in the basin are contaminated with volatile organic compounds, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). At last count, 65 wells were shut down, 35 because of volatile organics and 30 because of high nitrate readings.

New Wells Dug

San Gabriel Valley water producers have managed to deliver water that meets federal and state standards by digging new wells, installing treatment systems and blending lower-quality water with high-quality water.

EPA put the San Gabriel Valley ground-water problem on its Superfund cleanup list in 1984, five years after TCE and other industrial solvents that are suspected carcinogens were first detected in area wells.

EPA has put much of its Superfund effort in the San Gabriel Valley thus far into studies that define the extent of ground-water contamination and in developing plans to keep contaminants from spreading southward through Whittier Narrows into another water basin that also serves 1 million people.

Last fall, EPA approved its most ambitious project so far for the region, construction of a $5.4-million system to treat ground water at Whittier Narrows. It also began channeling funds to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to help it find companies that are polluting ground water.

Complicated Cleanup

Torres said he has asked state and regional regulatory agencies, local water officials, and businessmen and residents concerned about water quality to testify at the June 5 hearing.

Wil Baca, a Hacienda Heights environmentalist and engineer who has been asked to testify, said cleaning up the entire ground-water basin is so complicated and expensive that the best course might be to pump ground water only for nondrinking purposes and turn to bottled water or in-home treatment systems for drinking water.

Baca noted that EPA has estimated that it would take decades and perhaps $800 million to undertake a full cleanup of the basin, if the job can be done at all.

"It seems to me that the problem is hopeless," Baca said.

Royall Brown, who was elected to the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District board last year on a water cleanup platform, said he hopes the congressional hearing will have the impact on water contamination that another hearing had on a toxic waste problem six years ago.

Weaknesses Exposed

Brown recalled that Torres arranged a congressional hearing in West Covina in June, 1983, to examine problems at the BKK landfill. Brown, who lives near the landfill, said that hearing was a key event leading to a halt in toxic-waste disposal at BKK a year later. The hearing exposed weaknesses in regulatory oversight of toxic-waste disposal and offered the first strong scientific evidence that contaminants could seep out of the landfill.

Brown said he does not know whether the ground-water hearing will offer any scientific revelations, but it will at least focus attention on the water-quality problem.

Torres said he, too, hopes that this hearing will be as productive as the BKK hearing six years ago. That hearing, he said, led to legislation that would have closed BKK to toxic waste if the dump operators had not taken that step voluntarily.

Torres said he expects the Baldwin Park hearing to be the first of a number of hearings on water contamination problems in the nation, and he expects to draft legislation based on the information that is developed.

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