Health officials lifted a ban on water use in half of Barstow on Sunday afternoon as the local utility continued to flush its system of perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel and munitions that authorities said may have contaminated the city water supply for months.
Test results that prompted the water ban and a state of emergency in the San Bernardino County town came from samples taken at neighboring Marine Corps Logistics Base in August and were verified Thursday, trigging an areawide "do not drink" order on Friday.
Only one of 18 wells feeding the Golden State Water Co. system showed high levels of the chemical. Perchlorate can interfere with iodine uptake in the thyroid gland, which regulates hormones and growth. Readings from the well were more than 15 times the acceptable level for drinking water, a water company official confirmed.
The Golden State Water Co. last tested its wells for perchlorate in December 2009 and was slated to repeat the test in December 2012, an interval that officials said complied with state regulations.
In a news conference Sunday evening, Barstow Mayor Joe Gomez said both the city and the regional water-quality agency will investigate the cause of the contamination and potential health effects.
The privately held utility began flushing the city's water pipes Saturday evening. Workers systematically uncorked neighborhood fire hydrants and funneled the contaminated water into sewer drains, flooding streets in some areas.
Tractor-trailers filled with bottled water have been rolling nonstop up Interstate 15 since Saturday, replenishing grocery store shelves and the four busy drive-through distribution centers set up by the city.
More than a dozen restaurants closed their doors, hotels unplugged ice machines and the Starbucks off Main Street, a popular pit stop for road-weary drivers returning from Las Vegas, was serving only drip coffee — no cafe lattes or other super-charged caffeinated brews.
Even with the good news Sunday, long-timers in this Mojave Desert town worried about the effects of being exposed to perchlorate.
"It's been hard. My wife won't even take a shower because she's so scared," said Charlie Gallegos, 65, a retired machine parts inspector on the Marine base. "I have, but I'll tell you, I've been feeling kind of itchy. It may be just in my mind, but I can't help it."
Gallegos said the water emergency is also threatening his family's Thanksgiving plans — his daughter is balking about bringing the grandchildren up from Aliso Viejo for a visit.
Officials from the California Department of Public Health and the water company have assured residents that the tap water is safe for bathing, as well as for washing dishes and hands. However, they've warned people not to drink the water or use it to cook or clean food.
State health experts don't believe the perchlorate exposure will have any effect on residents, even those considered at high risk, such as pregnant women and people with thyroid conditions, said Al Lundeen, a spokesman for the public health agency.
But those assurances offered little comfort to Bill Hayes, 56, who picked up two cases of free bottled water at Barstow Community College on Sunday, one of the city distribution centers.
"It's scary to realize that they don't even know how long the contamination has been there, or where's it's coming from," said Hayes, a foreman at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in Barstow whose wife has a thyroid condition. "You know the government is somehow responsible for this. We have nothing but military bases around here … and the government tends to cover up things like this."
Sabrina Ellis, 29, who works in the Barstow Police Department records division, said residents have received mixed messages about how safe the water is for washing. Officials at her children's elementary school told students Friday not wash their hands with the water, yet the local hospital is allowing patients to shower.
"I had to run out to Walmart to buy a bunch of that hand-sanitizer stuff," said Ellis, one of the volunteers handing out water Sunday. "It's confusing."
City Councilman Tim Saenz said he doubts those concerns will be alleviated until the water company and state health officials conduct a thorough investigation of the contamination and outline how future problems can be avoided.
"People are worried about their health. I'm worried — I have five children," he said.
State law requires perchlorate levels to be below 6 parts per billion. The contaminated Golden State Water Co. well, in the northeast part of Barstow, had a level of 100 parts per billion, said company spokesman John Dewey. Two other wells in the northern part of town also showed excessive perchlorate contamination levels, but had been shut down by the company weeks earlier for unrelated reasons.
Dewey said the levels in the entire water system were much lower because they were diluted by water from uncontaminated wells.
The source of the contamination has yet to be determined, he said.
Testing is now a daily routine as officials flush the system to rid it of any perchlorate residue. The flushed water will not be treated; it will be returned to groundwater, where contamination levels are likely to be diluted to well below levels of concern, said Mark Murphy, director of Barstow's response to the water crisis.
"The concern was that you just can't dump it any place," said Murphy, explaining that the city waste-treatment plant does not have the capability to filter out the compound. "It's not going to be concentrated. It's going to be contained. It's going to be diluted."
The Department of Defense tests for the contaminant yearly at the Marine facility, which also receives its water from the Golden State Water Co., said base spokesman Robert Jackson. Perchlorate levels in the Marine base water supply exceeded 20 parts per billion in some areas, he said.
In areas where the ban has been lifted, residents have been told to flush all water lines in their home or apartment by running all hot and cold water taps for 5 minutes, and to flush hot water into a bathtub until the water turns cold. They've also been told to toss any ice from icemakers.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district includes Barstow, said he's still concerned that some residents who live near the contamination site and have private residential wells may be drinking perchlorate-laced water.
"We'll be looking into that," he said. "All of those wells need to be tested."
Perchlorate-contaminated water supplies have been a remnant of Southern California's wealth of industrial manufacturing, aerospace and military bases over past decades — especially in once-remote areas that were transformed by the region's sporadic housing booms. Perchlorate has contaminated hundreds of public agency water wells, mostly in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Sacramento counties.