Cities Ask EPA to Step Up Water Monitoring Plan : Pollution: Officials fear spread of tainted water from San Gabriel Valley.


A coalition of local cities and water agencies, fearful of the spread of polluted ground water from the San Gabriel Valley, has urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to quickly step up its monitoring program in the Whittier Narrows.

A plume of industrial contaminants in the heavily polluted ground water of the San Gabriel Valley is slowly heading south toward the Whittier Narrows, a two-mile-wide gap in the Puente Hills just north of Pico Rivera and Whittier.

Significant pollution has moved as far south as the San Bernardino Freeway, several miles upstream of the Whittier Narrows, and is moving south at 100 to 1,000 feet per year, said Tom Kremer, an EPA branch chief.

At that rate, heavy contamination is still years away from flowing through the narrows into the aquifers in the Southeast/Long Beach area. But officials of the Southeast Water Coalition said in a meeting with EPA officials last week that they want an extensive monitoring program as soon as possible.

Municipal water departments and independent water companies supplying area residents and businesses obtain about half of their water from the ground. They buy the rest from the Metropolitan Water District.

"The people need to be reassured of the water quality at all times," Norwalk Mayor Luigi A. Vernola told EPA officials.

Industrial contaminants, some suspected of causing cancer, have been detected in recent years in water drawn from wells in the Whittier Narrows area. The EPA has monitored ground water quality from about 50 wells in the area.

Initially, the EPA had mentioned the possibility of building a treatment plant at the Whittier Narrows. But ground water tests last year detected less pollution than before, making the plant unnecessary, said Tom Kremer, an EPA branch chief.

Instead, the EPA proposed drilling nine more wells in the next five years to detect when a large amount of pollution nears the Whittier Narrows. Those wells would detect the pollution about five years before it would pass through the narrows, Kremer said.

"We don't see the threat," Kremer said. "With the monitoring network, this should provide the security, an early warning network."

But Southeast Water Coalition officials contend that the wells should be installed as soon as possible and that more than nine might be needed. They also want a comprehensive plan in place to stop the pollution--such as pulling out water and treating it--in case the contamination arrives sooner than expected.

They fear that contamination is passing through the Whittier Narrows undetected by EPA monitoring and point to a well in Pico Rivera that is polluted with the industrial solvent tetrachloroethylene. It is owned by the Pico Rivera Water Department, which pumps ground water just south of the Whittier Narrows.

But Enrique Acevedo, Pico Rivera public works director, said the pollution also could have come from nearby industrial sources.

Future EPA monitoring should help determine whether the contamination is coming from the San Gabriel Valley, Kremer said.

Pico Rivera mixes the water from the contaminated well with clean water from another well to meet California drinking-water standards.

EPA and Southeast Water Coalition officials plan to meet in the next few weeks to work out the details of the monitoring program, including when the monitoring wells will be installed.

Water coalition officials said they also will submit a contingency plan to deal with the contamination once it is detected.

The Southeast has its own ground water pollution, which has forced well closures in Downey, South Gate and other cities in recent years.

But contamination levels in the San Gabriel Valley are 10 to 100 times higher than those in Southeast cities, officials said. As a result, the EPA in 1984 placed most of the San Gabriel Basin on its Superfund list of environmental hazards targeted for priority cleanup.

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