EPA to Retain Its Contractor to Bar Additional Delays

Times Staff Writer

Under criticism for moving too slowly to clean up polluted ground water in the San Gabriel Valley, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to keep its current contractor on the project to avoid further delays.

Daniel W. McGovern, EPA regional administrator, announced in a letter to Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) that the firm CH2M Hill, which has been working on the project since 1983, will be retained.

San Gabriel Valley water officials had protested a proposal by the EPA to assign the project to another contractor, saying that time would be lost while a new contractor's employees reviewed studies and other work already done.

"I am happy to inform you that after careful consideration of the situation, EPA has made a final decision to continue to use CH2M Hill on the San Gabriel project," McGovern said.

But although CH2M Hill will remain on the job, McGovern also said in the letter that a comprehensive cleanup plan, which the consulting firm has been drafting for the EPA, will not be unveiled to the public in July as promised at a congressional hearing.

Torres, chairman of the House small business subcommittee on environment and labor, conducted a hearing in Baldwin Park four weeks ago to examine EPA's work on the San Gabriel Valley ground-water problem. The EPA told Torres at the hearing that it would present a comprehensive cleanup plan to the public in July.

But McGovern said in his letter that the public announcement of the plan will not come until the end of the year.

McGovern said the EPA will first consult with local and state agencies to develop agreement on a strategy.

"It is important that EPA give these agencies a meaningful opportunity to comment on and reach consensus on the overall planning for the San Gabriel Valley project," McGovern told Torres. "EPA hopes to use its draft plan as a vehicle for reaching consensus and develop a plan that has mutual ownership."

"After we have worked with other agencies to refine our strategy," he said, "we expect to release the plan to the public by the end of the year."

He said the agency also will hold a number of community meetings this summer and fall "to explain this complex problem and our proposed strategy to the public and to invite their input into the process."

After reading the letter, Torres said he was concerned about the EPA's decision to delay the public release of its comprehensive strategy.

But, he said, the letter "is about what I expected. At least we've got their attention and their commitment to address the severity of the problem."

Moved Too Slowly

Torres said he plans to continue to examine the EPA's performance with additional hearings in Washington. Torres has complained that the EPA has moved too slowly on the San Gabriel Valley ground-water problem, which was discovered nearly 10 years ago.

Torres said the retention of CH2M Hill should eliminate a potential delay in the project. The congressman said he has no preference for CH2M Hill over any other contractor, but was concerned about the time that could be lost on the job by making a change.

CH2M Hill, a consulting firm based in Corvallis, Ore., is one of several contractors employed by the EPA under the federal Superfund program for cleaning up toxic waste. Because of contractual limits on the amount of work it can assign CH2M Hill, the EPA had considered using another contractor in the San Gabriel Valley so that CH2M Hill could devote its time to other Superfund projects.

At the congressional hearing, Robert G. Berlien, general manager of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, testified that "changing contractors in mid-project can only result in significant time delays as one contractor phases out and another gears up to take over. Vast amounts of specific site experience will be lost in the change, and large expenditures will be needed to educate the new engineering contractor."

Good News

Berlien said last week that the decision to retain CH2M Hill is good news. "I'm happy to see it," he said.

At the same time, Berlien said, he was not surprised that the EPA has retreated from its promise to deliver a comprehensive cleanup plan by July. He said it is normal practice for the EPA to consult with other agencies before presenting major proposals to the public.

EPA officials said they believe it is especially important that a consensus be developed in this case because the federal Superfund alone cannot bear the entire burden of controlling ground-water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley. The EPA has estimated that it will take hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of work to bring the pollution under control.

About one-fourth of the water wells in the San Gabriel Valley are contaminated with cancer-causing solvents. However, by digging new and deeper wells, blending contaminated water with purer water and installing treatment systems, water agencies have managed to continue delivering drinking water that meets state and federal standards.

Much of the EPA's work in the San Gabriel Valley so far has been devoted to charting the extent of the contamination. In addition, the EPA has built a system to treat water from two polluted wells owned by the Richwood Mutual Water Co. in El Monte and is planning a $5.5-million system to treat water from four wells owned by Suburban Water Systems in the Whittier Narrows area. Construction of the Suburban system is scheduled to begin in September.

Next Major Project

The EPA's next major project is developing a system to stop the spread of contaminants from the Main San Gabriel Basin, which serves 1 million people, southward through Whittier Narrows to the Central Basin, whose wells also serve 1 million people.

The Whittier Narrows plan will be circulated to state and local agencies this month and released for public comment in the fall.

The comprehensive plan will outline various water treatment projects that should be undertaken in the San Gabriel Valley and establish priorities. EPA officials have already said that the list will be headed by treatment systems in Azusa and Baldwin Park, which have the area's highest concentrations of contaminated ground water.

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