Federal and state regulators are investigating whether a vintage air conditioning system at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank played a role in contaminating groundwater with chromium 6, a cancer-causing heavy metal widely used in aerospace manufacturing and other industries.
A consultant hired by the Environmental Protection Agency recently identified the Disney property among a list of facilities being "investigated as potential sources of chromium contamination in groundwater," according to an April 2012 report recently posted on the agency's website.
Authorities have long been aware of chromium 6 contamination in San Fernando Valley groundwater and have already identified a number of companies responsible for contamination, including aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. Lockheed paid $60 million to settle claims with roughly 1,300 residents in 1996 alleging that exposure to chromium 6 and other toxins at its former aircraft manufacturing plant left them with cancer and other maladies.
The Disney site has recently come under scrutiny by state and federal officials as part of a broader investigation into groundwater contamination, records show. Citing community concerns about contamination, the California Department of Public Health in 2010 tested soil in a nearby park that historically had received discharges of water from Disney's cooling system and found Chromium 6.
The levels were not deemed to be a threat to public health. Even so, the EPA sent a letter to Walt Disney Co.and its president, Robert Iger, last year, asking them to "describe in detail and in narrative fashion, the cooling system and cooling towers used at the facility, and changes to the cooling systems and cooling towers since the beginning of Disney operations at the facility."
The Disney headquarters was among several locations being investigated as a potential source of contamination, in part because it used cooling towers, a known source of chromium 6 contamination at other sites, Lisa Hanusiak, remedial project manager for EPA Region 9, said in an interview this week. Hanusiak also cited the 2010 health department's soil tests.
"We're trying to determine the source of chromium — why is it there?" Hanusiak said. "We had these soil samples downgrade, so that led us to think, What was going on at facilities upgrade?"
Disney has denied using chromium compounds in its air conditioning system or cooling towers. The company said in a detailed response to the EPA on May 17, 2011, that it stored a small amount of chromium-based material used to clean equipment in film processing and that the hazardous waste was properly disposed of through the city of Burbank. Disney said tests of the wastewater discharge showed low levels of chromium that were "well within the effluent limitations allowed by the city of Burbank."
According to Disney's response to regulators, the company's original cooling system dates to 1938 and used groundwater pumped from wells to pre-cool and pre-heat buildings on the site, at one point circulating up to 1.7 million gallons of water a day. The wastewater was discharged into settling basins and then to the Los Angeles River, as well as to Burbank's storm system. In 1993, Disney replaced the system with cooling towers that relied on water supplied by the city of Burbank, the company told regulators.
Disney officials on Wednesday declined to comment beyond their statements in the documents.
The EPA has been working with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to assess the contamination threat. In an Oct. 18, 2010, letter to Iger, posted on the EPA's website, the board wrote that it was investigating the company's water discharges, and cited a chemical questionnaire that indicated chromium 6 was "used and stored at (Disney's) 500 South Buena Vista facility."
The board also said Disney's consultants nearly two decades earlier had failed to supply specific water-quality data the board had requested to "evaluate the chromium contents of the discharge waters or the water in the onsite groundwater wells." The board ordered the company to submit a plan for testing soil and groundwater on the site.
"The cooling system wastewater discharge, containing aqueous chromate salts, constitutes a significant potential threat to the groundwater quality of the regional aquifer in the San Fernando Valley," Sam Unger, the board's executive officer, said in the letter to Iger.
The EPA announced in February it would dig 30 new chromium 6 monitoring wells throughout the Glendale-Burbank area to gauge the extent of contamination and to determine which companies are responsible.
The wells included two locations east and west of the Disney property, one at the 11-acre area in Griffith Park known as Pollywog, where the health department conducted soil tests.
Chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, has many uses, including preventing corrosion of pipes in air conditioning systems and eliminating microbes in cooling towers.
According to a report last year byURS Corp., a consulting firm hired by Disney, chromium 6 was "detected in 97 of 139 soil samples," though most readings were below government health standards for industrial land use. Groundwater samples showed chromium 6 levels were below state standards. URS said that chromium 6 is a "naturally occurring metal in this area."
The city of Burbank received complaints from neighboring residents about potential chrome 6 contamination from the Disney site in 2006. The neighbors subsequently filed lawsuits in 2009 and 2010 alleging Disney dumped chromium 6 contaminated wastewater into settling ponds near the Los Angeles River.
Disney called the allegations meritless and cited the results of the California Department of Public Health study that found there was no threat to public health from the discharges. The department did note "conflicting information as to Disney's past use of chromium 6 in cooling water," according to a Feb. 18, 2010, letter from its director, Mark Horton.
The suits were dismissed.
Chromium 6 captured wide public attention in 2000 with the release of the Academy Award-winning movie "Erin Brockovich," about residents sickened by a Pacific Gas & Electric plant in the Mojave Desert city of Hinkley. PG&E; had used chromium 6 as an anti-rusting agent to prevent corrosion in cooling towers, and has paid more than $600 million to settle lawsuits.
A Times series in 2000 revealed widespread chromium 6 pollution in the aquifers of Glendale, Burbank and North Hollywood. Federal officials detected the chemical in 30 of 80 eastern San Fernando Valley groundwater monitoring sites.
The presence of carcinogenic material in those wells is especially perilous because all three cities pumped some of their drinking water from the aquifer, and until recently there was no proven method to safely remove chromium 6 from drinking water. Burbank officials met state health standards by diluting the tainted water with cleaner water from other sources. Glendale dumped much of what it couldn't use into the Los Angeles River.