Cleanup of Area Superfund Sites Is Jeopardized


Budget wrangling in Washington has jeopardized the cleanup of 12 toxic Superfund sites in and around Los Angeles, including a huge San Bernardino project where work has been halted on an underground river of contamination that has polluted one-third of the city’s water supply.

The San Bernardino site is one of four around the state, along with projects near downtown Los Angeles, in South Gate and in Oakland, where cleanup operations have been suspended, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Superfund program.

In the coming months, EPA officials said, the budget impasse could curtail cleanup work at eight contaminated ground water sites in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and at the Stringfellow acid pits in Riverside County.

The Superfund program was created to concentrate public and private efforts on the nation’s most hazardous toxic hot spots. But the 15-year-old program, plagued by huge cost overruns and long delays, has become a prime target of congressional critics determined to shrink federal environmental programs.

With the goal of slashing Superfund costs by more than 20%, the Republican majority began whittling away at the program last summer. Those cuts were compounded by the federal government shutdown earlier this month and by patchwork funding in the absence of a federal budget.


As a result, EPA officials say, the agency has had to withdraw support for a number of Superfund cleanups around the country that were showing signs of progress.

On Washington Boulevard just east of downtown Los Angeles, for example, EPA officials say they had to walk away from the half-finished cleanup of an abandoned metal-plating factory. The property remains heavily contaminated with metal residue, including hexavalent chromium, which can cause cancer, said Bill Lewis, the EPA’s project manager.

Despite a fence and a security guard, homeless people continue to find their way onto the property, Lewis said. “Our biggest concern there is that rain will wash the soil onto the streets and spread the contamination,” Lewis said.

In South Gate, the EPA has suspended its investigation of migrating toxic substances from property once owned by a company that stored hazardous chemicals. So far, high levels of cancer-causing benzene and vinyl chloride have been found in the soil at a nearby elementary school and in the water of four municipal wells. The school has been closed and the wells shut down.

In Oakland, the EPA said it has had to suspend another Superfund cleanup of lead and other toxic material from 30 backyards in a residential neighborhood next to a defunct battery plant.

But the biggest setback occurred in San Bernardino, where state and federal agencies have already invested close to $10 million trying to stop the spread of an 8 1/2-mile underground “plume” of chemical contamination.

Believed to be the toxic residue of a World War II supply depot, the fast-moving pollution consists mainly of chlorinated hydrocarbons that are suspected carcinogens.

Last September, the EPA was on the verge of building a treatment system designed to extract and clean the polluted ground water before it could spread further. But after Congress cut $100 million from last year’s Superfund budget, EPA officials say, there was no money to begin building the treatment system.

Leading the campaign to rescind the $100 million was Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who chairs a House subcommittee overseeing the EPA budget. Lewis represents a large portion of San Bernardino County that lies in the path of the migrating contamination.

A spokesman for Lewis said Thursday that the congressman continues to believe that Superfund “is in desperate need of reform” and remains committed to cutting its budget.

In San Bernardino, so far, the pollution has infiltrated 20 municipal wells, EPA officials say, and could affect 30 to 40 others that provide drinking water for residents of San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Both local and federal water quality officials now worry that the underground plume of contamination will soon move beyond the proposed treatment site and $3 million worth of design work and property acquisition will have been wasted.

“It’s incredibly frustrating. We should have started the work by now, before the problem gets away from us,” said Kevin Mayer, the EPA’s project manager.

He added: “600,000 people drink this water, and the plume is heading toward more and more of them at a rate of three feet per day.”

Up to now, the city of San Bernardino has dealt with the problem by cleaning the water as it comes out of each affected well. But that process does not attack the underground source of the pollution. And as more and more wells are contaminated, the cleanup costs soar. They could be double or triple the expense of building a single treatment facility, city officials say. San Bernardino’s polluted aquifer is one of 96 federal Superfund sites in California. Although many of the cleanup operations are dependent solely on the EPA for funding, most are supported by both public and private money.

For the moment, the sites that rely most heavily on EPA money are in greatest jeopardy. But privately funded cleanups also could be interrupted.

In the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, businesses held responsible for polluting ground water at eight Superfund sites are expected to pay for the most of cleanup work.

However, legislation pending in Congress would free many companies of Superfund liability, shifting the burden of cleanup costs to state and federal governments.

Meanwhile, the EPA is running out of money to do its share of the work in those places.

Keith Takata, who oversees the EPA’s Superfund work in California, said that soon there may not be money to operate monitoring wells in the San Gabriel Valley that indicate whether underground pollution is spreading beyond the valley. And in the San Fernando Valley, he said, there may not be funds to pay for a planned water treatment plant in North Hollywood.

Takata said the EPA could face another shortfall at the 15-year-old Stringfellow Superfund site in Riverside, where 34 million gallons of industrial waste and pesticide residue were poured into evaporation ponds that eventually overflowed.

“In a worst-case scenario, we could be without the funds [$4 million annually] to operate a plant that treats contaminated ground water.”

* BUDGET IMPASSE CONTINUES: Negotiators are walking away from dying budget talks. A4