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Industrial Pollution Is Threatening Our Drinking Water: A Dispatch From Los Angeles County

While a drought-striken LA county scrambles to clean up chemicals, a report finds illegal wells have tainted aquifers.

A public swimming pool in Maywood, Southeast Los Angeles. Maywood is home to a pilot project aimed at tackling groundwater pollution in the county. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

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Parched brown postage-stamp lawns, freeway signs extolling water conservation and scorched, tinder-dry hillsides are just some of the more visible reminders of the current drought’s choking grip for the 10.2 million people who live in Los Angeles County.

Though water use has been cut by 29 percent in the state over the last two years, with summer temperatures already hovering around triple digits, a question being asked with greater frequency and not a little more urgency is this one: If, as some experts ominously predict, the drought continues well into the foreseeable future, where’s the county’s drinking water going to come from?

Currently, LA County relies on water from three main sources: northern California, the Colorado River and groundwater beneath the county’s feet. And while groundwater is the most accessible of the three, it’s far from the cleanest. Indeed, no other county in the state is more reliant than LA County on groundwater that has been deemed contaminated at one time or another.

That’s not to say that the problem has gone unheeded. Since the 1980s, billions of dollars have been pumped into cleaning the county’s four main water basins: the San Fernando, San Gabriel, Central and West Coast Water Basins. But all these years later, a losing battle is still being waged in some areas against the continued migration of contamination into clean aquifers, a toxic legacy from decades of heavy industrial pollution in the region. And the situation is reaching a watershed.

Experts predict that, unless further drastic measures are taken within five to eight years to tackle groundwater pollution in the San Fernando Basin alone, contaminated plumes will become so dense and permanent that the rest of the wells in that area will need to be shut down.

The Cost of Groundwater Cleanup

For the past two-and-a-half-years, leading figures from a number of state and regional environmental agencies have convened three times a year to discuss what to do about the issue – a rare instance of so many influential experts, governmental agencies and environmental organizations collaborating toward a shared goal, but one that highlights the enormity of the problem.

Brought together by leading California environmentalists Jane Williams, Cynthia Babich and Robina Suwol, the assembled experts at each convening, have wrestled with this question: How can LA County’s groundwater be cleaned more quickly and effectively?

If, as some experts, the drought continues well into the foreseeable future, where’s the county’s drinking water going to come from?

At the nexus of the issue is the ever-ubiquitous matter of money – experts pin the cost of removing denser contaminants alone from the nation’s groundwater at upwards of $110 billion. But there are other hurdles to negotiate. One is that there is no one method available to successfully remediate the sorts of toxic chemicals found in LA County’s groundwater. Nor has the sheer extent and exact nature of the contamination been comprehensively mapped – a glaring omission as agencies draw up their remediation plans. Then there’s the simple matter of time. Some cleanups take decades to accomplish.

With the task of these meetings to find a new way to approach the problem, the success of the mission could hinge around a pilot project slated for the small city of Maywood, in southeast LA – a project that seeks to bring the collaborative nature of the thrice-yearly “convenings” out into the field.

“We need to understand what the dynamics are and how to get beyond those things: the bureaucracy, the technology and the cooperation that needs to be created,” said Ken Manning, executive director of San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority.

“A number of different agencies all play a part in any cleanup,” he added. “And so, you’ve got to figure out how these different agencies fit into the formula, what role they’re going to play, and then we need to educate them about how they’re going to interact with one another.”

Past Efforts to Address Industrial Pollution

The history of heavy industrial pollution in LA County can be traced back to World War II and onward into the ’70s – a period when companies enjoyed much looser regulatory shackles than today when it comes to the disposal of industrial chemicals. Aerospace and defense manufacturers, metal plating companies and dry cleaners provide a cross-section of the sorts of industries responsible for this history of contamination.

These are the businesses from which heavy-duty solvents such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchoroethylene (PCE), perchlorate and NDMA (both constituents of rocket fuel) and hexavalent chromium (a byproduct of welding) made their way into the groundwater. Most of these chemicals are known carcinogens, while all are listed by the EPA as causes of acute human health effects.

The year 1979 marked a pivotal juncture in the story of groundwater contamination in LA County – that was the year multiple areas of contamination were first discovered in the San Gabriel Water Basin. And remediation efforts have been ongoing there ever since.

Approximately 30 square miles of the 170-square-mile San Gabriel Valley Water Basin – from which 1 million people currently acquire 90 percent of their drinking water – is still polluted.

There are currently six different Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Sites in the San Gabriel Valley, comprising 32 separate groundwater treatment systems. As of the beginning of last year, these 32 projects had treated more than 100 billion gallons of contaminated water and removed over 70,000 pounds of contaminants from the groundwater, while 50,000 pounds of soil contaminants was removed from industrial facilities.

The cost of these cleanups has run into hundreds of millions of dollars – over $650 million so far. Responsible parties have contributed to nearly three-quarters of the overall costs, while $600-$700 million is still required for ongoing remediation efforts, making this combined groundwater cleanup project one of the largest and most expensive ever in the United States.That’s because the extent of the remaining contamination is staggering.

Approximately 30 square miles of the 170-square-mile San Gabriel Valley Water Basin – from which 1 million people currently acquire 90 percent of their drinking water – is still polluted.The Baldwin Park Operable Unit alone addresses a “commingled” plume of groundwater contamination – replete with such chemicals as TCE, PCE, perchlorate and NDMA – over a mile in width and 8 miles in length.

Manning expects the cleanup in the San Gabriel Valley to continue for another 20 to 25 years before the project can be deemed “finished.” Though “finished” doesn’t necessarily mean that the aquifers will be completely purged of contaminants.

“Unfortunately, it’s a moving target because of state and federal laws in terms of maximum contaminant limits. And we still don’t know exactly how much of the contamination is in the unsaturated zone that will still make its way into the groundwater,” he said.

Despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead, the cleanup in the San Gabriel Valley is at a far more advanced stage than that in the San Fernando Water Basin, said Manning -“They’re where we were 25 years ago.” That’s why cleanup efforts there have reached a critical juncture.

The San Fernando Water Basin

The discovery of contaminants in the San Gabriel Water Basin in the late ’70s triggered a broader investigation of groundwater contamination throughout LA County, prompting the San Fernando Valley Superfund Site to be placed on the National Priorities List in 1986.

The San Fernando Water Basin provides nearly 80 percent of all local groundwater pumped by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, an agency with groundwater rights to five separate water basins. Today, there are essentially three distinct EPA-implemented cleanup systems toward the east of the San Fernando Valley: at Burbank, Glendale and North Hollywood. And in the last two years alone, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has installed another 25 groundwater monitoring wells as part of an effort to study the contamination that has resulted in the recent trend of water well closures.

Of the 115 supply wells in operation in 1990, roughly half are now impaired due to elevated contamination levels. Of the remaining half, about 30 are deemed “reliable.” As recently as 2002, there were 49 “reliable” wells in operation.

“Then we have about 20 or so that can operate from time to time, but we have to do that in a tentative fashion because when we pump, the contaminant level in the water might elevate, at which point we have to back off the pumping for a bit,” said Greg Reed, of LADWP Water Resources.

There have been successes. The 12-strong Tujunga well fields to the north of the North Hollywood Operable Unit were producing less than 7,000 acre-feet of water a year before granular activated carbon treatment systems were installed in two of the wells. Now, the entire well field produces more than 38,000 acre-feet of water. But efforts to contain the spread of all contaminants have been limited.

Migration of a plume of hexavalent chromium, for example, near the North Hollywood Operable Unit, has prompted the suspension of two wells since 2007. The largest TCE plume is almost 9 miles in length.

With that in mind, Reed doesn’t underplay the problem.

“When you have something so expansive as what you see here, how can you regain full use of something that has this kind of problem at this scale?” said Reed, pointing to a map showing TCE contamination across the San Fernando Water Basin.

“Small site-specific remediation is not going to deal with all of this contamination we see on this map.”

In many respects, the Central Water Basin tells a different, slightly more fortunate, story. That’s because the Central Basin, unlike the San Gabriel and San Fernando Water Basins, contains a layer of clay – an aquitard – that works like an “umbrella” to better protect lower aquifers from contamination closer to the subsurface.

Because water from the Central Basin is largely drawn from aquifers below the protective aquitard, the Central Basin is able to supply up to 40 percent of the overall groundwater demand in area. This is compared to the city of LA, where groundwater ordinarily comprises roughly 11 percent of total water usage during normal years and up to 30 percent during drought years.

The maximum amount of water that can be pumped from the Central Basin each year is 217,367 acre-feet – a figure that can be changed only by court order. Current pumping levels sit at roughly 17,000 acre-feet below that cap.

One of the reasons why cleanups are taking so long is because remediation technologies aren’t always up to the task.

But there are considerable incentives for cleaning the Central Water Basin, not least of all the increased potential of available water. Ted Johnson, chief hydrogeologist at the Water Replenishment District (WRD) predicts that if contaminants were removed from the subsurface aquifers, there could be “tens of thousands if not more acres per feet” of drinking water available for use each year.

Another incentive for cleanup is financial. Imported water in the Central Water Basin is approximately four times more expensive than groundwater. But where the Central Basin most closely resembles the San Fernando and San Gabriel Basins surrounds the sheer extent of contamination that still remains in the groundwater aquifers.

“The Whittier plume [which contains multiple contaminants, including TCE, PCE and perchlorate] is over four miles long, and that’s going to take decades to clean up,” Johnson said, highlighting just one of multiple and extensive contamination plumes in the Central Basin.

And one of the reasons why cleanups are taking so long is because remediation technologies aren’t always up to the task.

Remediation Technologies

“In general, there is no silver bullet technology that can treat all sites and all contaminants,” said Kurt Pennell, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University, and a leading expert in groundwater remediation.

The most ubiquitous treatment technology used to clean up the water basins in and around LA County is what is described as “pump and treat” – when water is drawn from polluted aquifers, treated to remove contaminants before being discharged to a water treatment facility or released to a surface water body.

“In situ” technologies, such as bioremediation (the use of natural organisms to degrade pollutants), and chemical oxidation (the injection of compounds such as permanganate and hydrogen peroxide into contaminated aquifers), are designed to break down the contaminants into nontoxic byproducts without bringing the contaminated groundwater to the surface.

Source zone technologies are designed to treat the highly contaminated soil and groundwater near the spill location. These methods include thermal remediation (heating the subsurface to more easily recover volatile contaminants), chemical flushing (the injection of surfactants and solvents), as well as “dig and haul” of toxic soils near the surface.

Those at the cutting edge of science use these sorts of technologies either in series or in parallel, said Pennel. “For example, one could apply surfactant flushing or thermal treatment to rapidly remove large quantities of contaminant mass, and then apply bioremediation to treat residual contamination over a longer time frame.”

The greatest problem, as always, is cost.

“The trade-off between cost and time, and regulatory requirements [and] treatment goals are important considerations at most sites,” he said.

Oil regulators admitted to wrongly issuing nearly 500 permits for oil industry waste disposal wells that violate federal and state law.

But other problems muddy the waters. In a recent paper, Pennell discussed how the most important idea to arise from the past decade of research, and perhaps the most contentious, has been the “recognition that the scientific community may not currently have the ability to develop technologies to restore all contaminated groundwater sites.”

Both the hydrogeology and geology of the cleanup site similarly complicates the process, agreed Ken Manning. “The geology is a definite barrier because what you’re doing is pumping from an area that you cannot see,” he said.

Failures in the Regulation of Oil Field Waste

One of a number of bare earth home-fronts along 61st S treet in Maywood, southeast LA - a symbol of a  drought that is reaching its fourth year in the state. (Photo: Daniel Ross)One of a number of bare earth home-fronts along 61st Street in Maywood, Southeast Los Angeles – a symbol of a drought that is reaching its fourth year in the state. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

Then there’s the issue of ongoing groundwater contamination, of which the state’s oil companies are playing a part. The Brown administration’s “underground injection control” regulations in effect in April were seen by environmentalists as a kick in the teeth to those pushing to better regulate the disposal of oil field wastewater into underground aquifers.

Earlier this year, it came to light that oil regulators admitted to wrongly issuing nearly 500 permits for oil industry waste disposal wells that violate federal and state law, while more than 2,000 enhanced oil recovery wells are also operating illegally in protected aquifers, the Center for Biological Diversity found.

Instead of levying penalties, the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has shut down just 23 of the hundreds of illegal wells that have dumped billions of gallons of hazardous oil waste into protected aquifers in California, including those in the San Fernando and Central Water basins, according to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s calculations show how these illegal disposal wells dump an average 27 million gallons of oil waste a day into protected aquifers in California.Though state regulators insisted in March that there has been no “drinking water” contamination from these oil and gas disposal wells.

“It’s completely irresponsible and shortsighted to sacrifice these aquifers to the oil industries just because it’s cheaper for them to dispose of their wastewater that way,” said Hollin Kretzmann, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

There are hundreds of chemicals that are known to have adverse human health effects that are used in fracking fluids, said Kretzmann, adding that these fluids are “oftentimes impossible to clean up.”

A Dearth of Information

Because of ongoing pollution, as well as an inadequate network of monitoring wells, not enough is known about the full extent of the environmental damage to LA County’s aquifers – though there have been efforts to fill the gaps.

A US Geological Survey and WRD groundwater study last year found how “contaminated groundwater found at shallow depths in the northeastern portion of the Central Groundwater Basin could migrate to greater depths where many drinking water supply wells are located.” And the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation released in June a 52-page report on the 228 government and private entities that deliver water in LA County, “… and how vulnerable or resilient they are to withstanding pressures from droughts and climate change.”

Drawing stats from six different federal and state databases, the report found that 40 percent of community water systems serving Los Angeles County had a “principal contaminant detected in an active raw or active untreated drinking-water well at a concentration above a Maximum Contaminant Level on two or more occasions between 2002 and 2010.”

What is more, of all of the government and private community water systems in the county, 75 percent of them suffer from at least one vulnerability sufficient to put its users at risk.

And one of those community water systems can be found in Maywood.

The Maywood Pilot Project

Nestled in the southeast portion of LA and flanked on its starboard side by the LA River, Maywood is a small, flat and tightly knit, little city of less than 30,000 residents. As is typical for this particular slice of LA, the city was built around car and aircraft manufacturers like Ford, Chrysler, Willys-Overland and Lockheed. And in the shadow of this long industrial legacy, has come the inevitable tailwind of toxic pollution.

Indeed, Maywood is home to the Pemaco Superfund Site – a former chemical mixing facility that closed in 1991, though not before the plant had spent decades releasing a cocktail of toxic chemicals such as PCB, TCE and vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, into Maywood’s groundwater. Remediation has been ongoing since 1997 and is expected to continue well into the future.

With ongoing remediation comes the threat of “emerging contaminants” – those chemicals that sometimes aren’t properly remediated because not enough is known about them.

Over the past few years, Maywood has courted attention to its water problems by virtue of a very public spat over tap-water discoloration – a result of manganese in the water, which officials insist isn’t harmful. More worryingly though, TCE was found in some of the wells used by the Maywood Mutual Water Company No. 3, one of three private companies responsible for water supplies to the city.

The discovery of TCE is one of the reasons why the Maywood Mutual Water Company No. 3 was targeted for a pilot project that has sprung from thrice-annual, multiagency “convenings.”

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, said Maywood was also targeted for the project because of its “history of strong partnerships between environmental justice groups, the local government and regulatory agencies.”

“We hope to be able to create a strong linkage between water remediation and plume remediation,” said Williams. “So, in Maywood, what we’re going to be doing is rehabilitating one of the wells, putting wellhead treatment on. But we’re also seeking to link that to an effort on behalf of the regulatory agencies to search for the source.”

The wellhead treatment part of the project is projected to cost in the region $1.5 million – funding is being sought from the $1 billion water bill passed into effect earlier this year.

“It is getting the state of California involved to use some of its funding to help clean up groundwater,” said Ted Johnson, that’s a challenge. “The state has always gone after polluters to investigate sites, but hasn’t really done much at the drinking water source.”

“We’ve got support from all the elements,” he added. “Support from Jane [William]’s group, from the regional and state water boards. We expect to hear back any day now that funding’s on its way.”

A green light on the Maywood pilot project coincides with what appears to be a concerted effort by some to better gauge the full picture of groundwater contamination throughout the county.

In 2017, the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) and the EPA are set to launch their Spatial Prioritization Geographic Information Tool, an amalgamation of a variety of existing databases that will help investigators better understand just how to identify and tackle source zones of contamination. Then there are the broader cleanups slated for each of the major basins in the county.

The LADWP, for example, is ramping up remediation efforts in the San Fernando Valley with plans to pump as much as $800 million into building two separate plants that will make up part of the world’s largest groundwater treatment center.

“The next phase of remediation efforts will be larger in its scope than the first,” said Greg Reed. And he pointed to how the new plants will be designed to better siphon out those contaminants that are “not removed with the current system,” such as hexavalent chromium. As it stands, hexavalent chromium-contaminated water is dumped into the sanitary sewer, said Reed.

Which leads to yet another underlying issue: a fear by many environmentalists of over-reliance on technologies such as pump-and-treat to remediate groundwater pollution.

“The authorities have estimated that they’re going to have to pump and treat at the Del Amo site for 5,000 years, rather than aggressively going in after the contamination,” said Cynthia Babich, director of the Del Amo Action Committee. Del Amo is the site of a Superfund cleanup that has been ongoing since 1992.

“What happens when they don’t go in and completely remove the [contamination] is that the communities are left with this burden of trying to make sure people come back and look at it again for years, 5,000 years in this case,” she added.

With ongoing remediation comes the threat of “emerging contaminants” – those chemicals that sometimes aren’t properly remediated because not enough is known about them – making their way into drinking water supplies, said Babich.

“We have a chemical here, pCBSA, that we don’t know a lot about. But they determined, without very much known about it, that they could pump it back into groundwater that didn’t have pCBSA in it at 25 parts-per-million, even though other chemicals are getting cleaned up to the parts-per-billion,” said Babich.

The chemical pCBSA is a by-product from the manufacturing of the banned pesticide DDT, but there have been no long-term toxicity or cancer studies done on pCBSA as yet.

“We were able to get information on this issue to Barbara Lee [director of the DTSC] in a timely manner,” said Babich. “She has not signed off on allowing this to happen. And that is a big, big thing.”