Breakthrough achieved in San Gabriel Valley groundwater cleanup

Agencies to Recover $4 Million in project costs immediately; parties agree to February 1 deadline for much larger Superfund settlement.

AZUSA, Calif., Jan. 12 /PRNewswire/ — Seven companies that allegedly contributed to San Gabriel Valley groundwater pollution will pay more than $4 million in cleanup costs immediately and work to enter into a broader, 15-year cleanup plan by a February 1 deadline, under an agreement announced today by the Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster.

Ending years of unsuccessful negotiations over cleanup of one of the nation's largest Superfund sites, the Watermaster, the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority and three local water providers signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) today with several key companies, including Aerojet General Corp., that have been identified as pollution sources in the Azusa, Baldwin Park and Irwindale areas.

�This is a significant step toward a comprehensive cleanup agreement that will meet local water supply needs,� said Carol Williams, executive officer of the Watermaster. �The repayment today of the water agencies' project costs is an encouraging indication of the responsible parties' commitment to work with us and reach a Definitive Agreement.�

The seven participating companies are among 19 that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S.EPA) has identified as responsible for cleanup costs in areas near Baldwin Park that were the hardest hit by groundwater contamination in the San Gabriel Basin. The contaminants include industrial solvents, perchlorate (a rocket fuel component) and NDMA, another chemical associated with rocket fuel.

The MOU requires immediate reimbursement of $4.1 million in costs for a new treatment plant in the Baldwin Park area. The La Puente Valley County Water District Treatment Project, which was completed last year, is the first plant in the nation to remove perchlorate and other contaminants to produce a source of local drinking water.

However, the broader cleanup agreement, described in the memorandum as the Definitive Agreement, would entail funding on a much larger scale. Last June, the U.S.EPA ordered Aerojet and 18 other �responsible parties� to design and build cleanup project for the Azusa, Baldwin Park and Irwindale areas, then estimated to cost $200 million. The memorandum signed today represents an effort by seven of those companies to begin meeting their obligations under the EPA order.

Bob Kuhn, Chairman of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority (WQA), invited the 12 others identified as �responsible parties� by the EPA to join in signing the Memorandum of Understanding and negotiating a Definitive Agreement.

�Up to now, there had been a lot of talk and not much action,� Kuhn said. �We have made a significant breakthrough. We appreciate the sincerity Aerojet and the other companies are showing by writing a check. We're optimistic we can come to a Definitive Agreement by February 1. But a Definitive Agreement will not relieve the other 12 responsible parties from paying for their share of the cleanup.�

Water officials said the U.S.EPA was a key player in facilitating the settlement talks and that federal regulators will be instrumental in achieving a final agreement that satisfies U.S.EPA's cleanup order for the responsible parties who participate.

Water officials also noted the critical role of Assembly Member Thomas M. Calderon in seeking groundwater cleanup solutions that would not burden San Gabriel Valley residents. Calderon chairs the Assembly Select Committee on San Gabriel Valley Groundwater Contamination and has held several hearings over the past two years. He has consistently urged responsible parties to expedite groundwater cleanup in a manner that meets local drinking water needs.

The 24-page MOU calls for the Watermaster, which is responsible for groundwater management in the Basin, to begin work immediately on a preliminary design report to be submitted to the U.S.EPA. The U.S.EPA, which is in charge of the San Gabriel Basin cleanup under the federal Superfund program, must give its approval before the plan can be carried out.

The projects to be covered by the Definitive Agreement would remove contaminants from heavily polluted groundwater in the Baldwin Park area, and also ease a threatened water shortage in the San Gabriel Valley by expanding the supply of clean water available to consumers. In addition, they would help prevent the spread of contamination through Whittier Narrows into the neighboring Central Basin.

The seven companies that signed the memorandum, in addition to Aerojet General Corporation, are Azusa Land Reclamation, Hartwell Corporation, Huffy Corporation, Oil and Solvent Process Company, Reichhold, Inc. and Wynn Oil Company. Under terms of the MOU, other companies may join at a later date.

Joining the Watermaster and the WQA in signing the MOU were La Puente Valley County Water District, Valley County Water District of Baldwin Park and the San Gabriel Valley Water Company. As with the responsible parties, other water producers and agencies also may join in the agreement later.

The MOU requires the companies to pay the $4.1 million to the WQA, Watermaster and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District for the treatment plant that was built for La Puente Valley County Water District. The La Puente district's wellfield in Baldwin Park was shut down in 1997 because of perchlorate contamination. Water agencies built the plant in 1999 to restore the water supply and demonstrate innovative cleanup technology. The repayment for the project was made today.

The WQA, Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and La Puente Valley County Water District filed suit last year against Aerojet General Corp. to recover costs of the cleanup plant.

The MOU requires the companies to pay only part of the costs demanded in the lawsuit, but the parties have agreed to stay legal action while negotiations are under way on a definitive agreement, said Water Quality Authority lawyer Craig Bloomgarden of Tatro, Coffino, Zeavin, Bloomgarden, LLP.

�The memorandum agreement will result in the payment to the Water Quality Authority of most of the past costs we are seeking in the litigation,� Bloomgarden said. �The Definitive Agreement is anticipated to address all of the other relief we're seeking in the case.�

In addition to the $4.1 million payment for the La Puente project, the companies have agreed in the memorandum to pay $5.2 million for other treatment projects already built, but only after a Definitive Agreement is signed. The MOU establishes principles for the Definitive Agreement under which the water entities will build and operate the required water treatment facilities with funding from the responsible parties. The scope of work and project schedule will be spelled out in the Definitive Agreement in accordance with U.S.EPA's requirements.

�A core principle of the MOU is that local residents should not pay a dime for the proposed cleanup,� said Watermaster attorney Fred Fudacz of Nossaman, Guthner, Knox and Elliott. �Obviously, much work remains to be done, but a Definitive Agreement implementing the cleanup on this basis would be most welcome.�

The memorandum provides that if state and federal funding is obtained by the agencies to fund work outlined in the Definitive Agreement, it will be used to offset the costs of the companies.

Congress approved major funding last year for use in the San Gabriel Basin where the total cost of cleanup has been estimated at more than $320 million.

Groundwater contamination was discovered in the San Gabriel Basin in 1979, and the U.S.EPA placed four major areas of the Basin on its Superfund list in 1984. In 1995, U.S.EPA began naming parties responsible for the contamination, and a group of them worked with water agencies to develop a cleanup plan. But those plans were scuttled in 1997 when perchlorate was discovered in the Basin and there was no established technology to remove it.

Since then, the La Puente Valley County Water District treatment plant and other projects have demonstrated ways to clean up perchlorate and other recently detected pollutants.

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