By ERIK NELSON
LOS ANGELES, Calif., Nov. 15, 2000 (New York Times Syndicate)— Los Angeles County's top water quality agency has identified 142 commercial properties, mostly in the Valley, as possible sources of cancer-causing chromium 6 that has tainted local water supplies, officials said Monday.
The list, which includes metal plating companies, aircraft parts manufacturers and even NBC Studios, is the starting point for the Regional Water Quality Control Board in its quest to find out who is responsible for the contamination and compel the polluters to pay for the cost of cleanup, which has yet to be determined.
"We believe they may have had chromium in use in the past," said Dennis Dickerson, the board's executive officer, who sent current occupants of the properties a letter last week asking them to fill out a form detailing their use of chromium and other possible groundwater contaminants.
The suspected carcinogen became a household word after the release of this year's movie "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts, in which the heroine exposed dangerous levels of chromium 6 in wells in Hinkley, Calif.
The list released Monday includes some properties that were listed because they have been investigated in the past for other types of water or even air pollution, hence the seemingly out-of-place Los Angeles Equestrian Center.
"I'm not exactly sure what chromium 6 is," said George Chatigny, general manager of the horse boarding and training facility, which has been located in Burbank since 1980. "We don't do any manufacturing here. What we have is horse waste, and that's about it."
Officials cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the list, saying it was casting a wide net over companies to question before narrowing its focus to the most likely polluters.
"It's the first step of the process," said water board chairman H. David Hahai, who added that it's too early to determine how extensive the problem is, let alone how much it will cost to clean up.
The list was prompted in part by the discovery of high levels of chromium 6 in tap water at 110 county government facilities. Studies showed that 39 percent of water samples from the facilities contained the chemical at levels 13 to 40 times higher than safe drinking water goals.
Eventually, the board hopes to find the actual sources of chromium 6 and order those responsible to pay for cleanup of groundwater supplies.
Ron Bernal, one of the owners of F&H Plating Co. in North Hollywood, said he received the letter but said "basically, it won't affect me."
He said he had stopped using chromium 6 for plating jewelry, doorknobs and other items 10 years ago because his customers wanted brass instead of chrome-plated items.
But he could understand why his company was listed because he still has a permit from the South Coast Air Quality Management District to use chromium.
Barry Rubin, manager of Caravan Fashion Enterprises in North Hollywood, said he also received the board's letter.
"They made a mistake and I've been trying to call them and rectify the situation," he said. "We're a dye house. We dye clothing."
Chromium 6, which is listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a "known human carcinogen," has become a dilemma for water regulators since its discovery in local drinking water supplies. According to existing state and federal standards, the water is safe to drink. However, the water fails to meet new, but nonbinding guidelines set by California EPA, and in some cases isn't considered safe to dump in the Los Angeles River.
On Monday, the water board attempted to make sense of some of these contradictions by having experts from all involved agencies give their assessment of the chromium 6 problem.
State and federal regulators testified that their standards for total chromium, which may include chromium 6, is 50 and 100 parts per billion, respectively. Those regulations must take into account the feasibility and cost of cleaning up the contaminant, they explained.
But Anna Fan of the state EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said her agency only considers health effects, and set its total chromium guideline for safe drinking water at 2.5 parts per billion.
©2000 Los Angeles Daily News