Lockheed Linked to Chromium 6 Pollution

Share via

Searching for the source of contamination in local water supplies, officials say they have found evidence suggesting that Lockheed Martin Corp. discharged chromium 6-laced water directly into the San Fernando Valley aquifer.

Reviewing old records and probing the memories of water quality workers now in their 70s and 80s, officials have zeroed in on waste water discharges at Lockheed’s former Plant B-1. It was the heart of the firm’s defense production from the 1930s through the Cold War.

The findings could make Lockheed liable for millions of dollars in costs to clean up the aquifer, which supplies 15% of Los Angeles’ drinking water.


“It’s our understanding that Lockheed used chromium 6 that was later injected into ground water, using wells on their property,” said Mel Blevins, the court-appointed watermaster who oversees ground water pumping rights for the upper Los Angeles River basin.

“That water, with high concentrations of chromium 6, or hexavalent chromium, was pumped and delivered to water customers by nearby cities, including Burbank, Glendale and Los Angeles,” he said.

Blevins--the official responsible for monitoring the water removed from the aquifer--said he bases his conclusion on state and county records showing that Lockheed dug wells in the 1940s to draw hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the aquifer for its air-conditioning system, then returned the water to the aquifer through separate return wells.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Gail E. Rymer confirmed that the company used chromium 6, a common rust inhibitor, in cooling towers for its air-conditioning system until 1966. The used coolant was not treated before it was discharged into the ground, she said.

“It was circulated through the [cooling towers] and recharged through return wells,” she said. “It was how we all did things. You could have gone to any large manufacturer and we all did it the same way.”

Rymer could not confirm that the chromium 6-infused water had been returned to the aquifer because she said she did not have access to records showing how deep the old wells were.


Rymer noted that regulators have not discovered the sources of today’s water pollution.

“If it is determined that Lockheed Martin contributed to the chromium contamination, we will meet our regulatory obligation and ensure the safety of the public’s drinking water,” she said.

Although it looks benign today, the 103-acre Plant B-1 was previously identified as a major source of the solvent contamination that led federal officials to declare the Valley aquifer a Superfund cleanup site in 1986.

When Lockheed Martin shuttered B-1 in 1991, workers dug as far as 25 feet down to remove contaminated soil and hauled away more than 600,000 cubic yards of dirt.

The site--which has been deemed safe for commercial development--will soon be transformed into a $300-million complex, with big-box retailers, offices, restaurants and hotels. Ground breaking is set for next month.

Underground Soil Cleaner

The development site has an unusual feature that Lockheed was required to build by water regulators: a $25-million cleanup plant containing hundreds of feet of underground pipes that act like a giant vacuum cleaner, removing solvents that seeped into the soil during six decades of aircraft manufacturing.

The facility rids the soil of solvents, but it does nothing to clean the ground water of chromium 6--a heavy metal used in cooling systems and in aircraft paints.


With state regulators considering tougher standards for total chromium, local water officials may eventually be forced to install a separate--and costly--system to remove chromium 6 contamination from ground water.

For Lockheed Martin, a former Burbank company now based in Bethesda, Md., the investigation raises the specter of yet another enormous cleanup bill.

The company has already paid an estimated $265 million to clean up solvent pollution in the underground water basin. Officials expect to spend $100 million more in operating costs over the next two decades.

That’s in addition to the $98 million that Lockheed has paid over the last decade to settle claims of health damages by workers and residents.

Chromium 6 is a proven carcinogen when inhaled, though scientists are still debating the risk it poses in water. Even so, citing the potential health threat, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has proposed a public health goal for total chromium of 2.5 parts per billion, which officials say would keep chromium 6 levels below 0.2 ppb.

The California standard for total chromium is 50 ppb. If the tougher standard is adopted by the state Department of Health Services, it could force Los Angeles, Glendale, Burbank and San Fernando to pay a combined $50 million a year to import water if the nearly 100 Valley wells are shut down.


In addition, Blevins said, each city could be forced to spend as much as $10 million on chromium 6 treatment plants, plus as much as $5 million a year to run them.

“We’re talking about big bucks to clean up the ground water,” he said. “The companies that contaminated the ground water basin should be the ones who clean it up.”

Even under the current, less restrictive standard, Los Angeles and Burbank have stopped pumping water from three Valley-area wells because of high levels of chromium 6 or total chromium.

Valley wells have shown chromium 6 as high as 30 ppb and total chromium as high as 110 ppb. Test drillings into ground water found some “hot spots” with chromium 6 readings of 500 ppb, according to records kept by Blevins’ office.

Officials say the water delivered to homes does not pose a health threat, because well water with high chromium 6 levels is blended with water from other sources to meet state standards.

Blevins, however, said he now suspects that water containing high levels of chromium 6 was routinely pumped to homes during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s--but he has no knowledge of how high those levels might have been.


Blevins became involved through his job as watermaster. He was appointed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1979 to oversee ground water pumping rights of Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale, San Fernando and the Crescenta Valley water district.

Blevins said that court mandate also gives him the authority to seek compensation on behalf of the water agencies if they cannot pump because of contamination.

“The pollution affects parties that have water rights,” Blevins said. “It affects the ability of those parties to take their water.”

In November, officials from Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale and San Fernando joined Blevins to say they were exploring steps--including possible litigation--to recoup losses and cleanup costs from Lockheed Martin and other companies in the east San Fernando Valley suspected of causing chromium 6 contamination of the aquifer.

Surveying Possible Chromium Polluters

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board $500,000 to investigate the sources of chromium 6 contamination in the Valley aquifer.

The board is surveying companies that may have used or discharged chromium 6. For his part, Blevins is reviewing old industrial discharge logs and regional water board documents.


He also plans to file motions in Los Angeles County Superior Court to take testimony from four retired water quality workers, now in their late 70s and 80s, who tested industrial runoff from Lockheed.

“They saw water being discharged into the storm drains and the [Los Angeles] river from Lockheed and other industries that was very ugly in appearance, and they were concerned about water quality and what kinds of poisons were involved,” Blevins said. “Some of the discharges they saw were bright green,” the color of concentrated chromium 6.

Blevins would not disclose the names of the men, saying he doesn’t want to compromise the investigation.

The workers, then employed by the county Department of Public Works, kept handwritten logs, dating back to the 1940s, that show discharges with levels of chromium 6 as high as 80,000 parts per billion were flowing into the storm drains and the Los Angeles River.

While much of the chromium 6 flowed to the ocean, Blevins said high discharges seeped into the ground water through almost 10 miles of unlined waterways and storm drains.

Blevins also is examining the role played by the water pumped for the cooling towers, then returned to the aquifer.


State documents reviewed by The Times show that Lockheed dug two wells that drew more than 100 million gallons of water a year from the aquifer throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s. The records also show that the company had two return wells, also known as injection wells, to recycle that water.

Blevins says the practice was similar to the situation in Hinkley, Calif., which was dramatized in the film “Erin Brockovich.” Pacific Gas & Electric paid $333 million to settle claims by residents there who said they were sickened by chromium 6 that was dumped from cooling towers into ground water at levels as high as 24,000 ppb.

“Hexavalent chromium was used extensively in the cooling towers as well as in chrome plating activities at Lockheed’s plant,” Blevins said.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Rymer said the company quit using chromium 6 as an anti-corrosive additive in its cooling towers in 1966.

“These were commonly used methods of discharge,” Rymer said. “The reinjection wells for the cooling system were commonly used throughout the country, and all discharges into those wells met the regulatory requirements of the time. There is nothing unique about that.”

A 1980 Lockheed internal memorandum obtained by The Times cites at least one injection well in the southeast corner of the Plant B-1 site that was used to dump manufacturing byproducts.


The memo is cited in a deposition in a court case against Lockheed by its insurers. It also mentioned an evaporation pond used to dispose of chemicals. Company officials expressed concern in the memo that environmental testing near the well and the pond would reveal “pollution from past activities.”

“There is no way of knowing what materials, now considered illegal, may have been disposed of in this area,” the internal memorandum says.

The B-1 site will soon be home to Costco, Target and other stores. Ben Reiling, president of developer Zelman Retail Partners Inc., said he is confident that the site--now called the Burbank Empire Center--has been thoroughly cleaned and presents no health threat to shoppers.

Hardened Paint Sludges Dug Up

“Lockheed Martin is a socially responsible company,” he said. “They set out to do a cleanup on the site, and they cleaned up the site.”

Some of the deepest soil excavation took place at a long-forgotten underground waste dump in the southeastern corner of the site, according to Lockheed documents.

Lockheed workers discovered the abandoned dump in the fall of 1984 while digging up an asphalt parking lot, company documents show.


Company officials said the dump was likely used in the 1940s and ‘50s. As workers dug into the soil, they discovered hardened, orange paint sludges containing zinc chromate primer.

Nine thousand cubic yards of soil contaminated with arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc was removed, regulatory records show.

Although state officials have deemed the site safe, the property cannot be used for homes, hospitals, schools or day care centers, according to a contractual condition of the deal between Lockheed and Zelman, Reiling said.

Moreover, as thousands of people work, shop and eat at the Burbank Empire Center each year, the vapor extraction system will be quietly removing toxic solvents from the soil beneath their feet for as long as seven more years--spewing as much as 9.8 pounds a day of solvent particles into the air under an agreement with the city of Burbank.

Lockheed Martin’s Rymer says the system is just another example of the company’s ongoing effort to restore the site.

“We are committed to the community to complete the cleanup and leave our legacy intact and take this property into the future,” she said.