Commercial property owners and small business people said last week that they can't afford to comply with environmental regulations designed to identify sources of water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley.
"If I'm guilty of contaminating anything, I'll pay my fair share," said Leon Wilton, president of a South El Monte machine shop. "But I don't want to be stuck with the bill, as a fall guy on a thing like this, when I didn't do anything wrong."
One difficulty Wilton and others face is they may have to pay consultants to undertake a series of sophisticated and expensive soil and water pollution tests. "I don't have the money," said Bill White, president of ITM Inc., an Azusa machine shop and truck repair business with 30 employees.
Wilton and White were among more than 70 people who complained to regional water pollution officials at separate meetings Wednesday and Thursday.
Several business owners said they want to solve what federal officials say is one of the West's worst ground-water contamination problems, estimated to cost as much as $1 billion to remedy.
Five years ago, shortly after the San Gabriel Valley's underground water supply basin was placed on a federal Superfund list of the nation's worst pollution problems, environmental officials began investigating sources of contamination.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with the help of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, has contacted more than 4,300 sites suspected of contributing to the pollution. After inspecting 1,591 of them, the officials have ordered some businesses to pay for drilling wells to conduct further pollution tests.
In 57 cases, officials have confirmed the sources of ground-water pollution. Identifying sources is the first step in a campaign to require those responsible to pay for cleanup. In recent weeks, the EPA has sent out notices to 70 San Gabriel Valley facilities, notifying them that they may be potentially responsible for pollution in the region.
"None of us like polluters and I don't want people pouring . . . contaminants into my drinking water supply," said Larry Beard, president of the 120-member South El Monte Property Owners Assn., which sponsored the Wednesday meeting.
But many participants said state and federal regulators unfairly are forcing them to spend thousands of dollars testing for pollution under their properties. In addition, they said, they are concerned that, because pollutants so readily travel underground, contamination detected under their businesses may have come from elsewhere.
Already, White said, he has spent more than $7,000 for tests and now faces spending perhaps $50,000 to drill a well deep enough to reach the water table, 250 feet below his Irwindale Avenue business.
He suggested to Hank Yacoub, chief of the toxics division of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, that the state or federal government should help with the costs of the investigations.
"They loan money to students," White said. "We're businessmen contributing to employment and the tax base. If we could just have some assistance."
Yacoub urged audience members to band together in the way environmentalists have done and then ask state and federal government for financial help.
Beard and others also spoke to federal and state environmental officials in El Monte on Thursday, at a public meeting to discuss short-term, water-pollution cleanup plans for the San Gabriel Valley.