Court steps in as California considers chromium-6 limit in drinking water

Natural Resources Defense Council: ‘It’s an urgent public health threat’

By Ian James | The Desert Sun

Coachella Valley Water District’s IXTP treatment facility, which removes arsenic and chromium from well water. / Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun

PALM SPRINGS — Two environmental groups that are suing the state seeking more stringent controls on hexavalent chromium in drinking water say a court has given state officials a deadline to propose a standard for permissible levels of the potential carcinogen.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group sued the California Department of Public Health last year, trying to speed the establishment of a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6.

Chromium-6 occurs naturally in parts of the Coachella Valley, where sediments flanking the San Andreas Fault contain chromium that dissolves in the groundwater.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo ruled during a hearing on Thursday that state officials should propose a standard for chromium-6 by the end of next month, said Nicholas Morales, the lead attorney for NRDC.

“The court found that the agency was in violation of the law and ordered them to set this regulatory limit, and it provided an interim deadline requiring that the agency propose the regulations by the end of August,” Morales said in a telephone interview. “Then we’re going to come back to court in October in order to discuss the need for perhaps a final deadline.”

“It’s significant because it’s an urgent public health threat,” Morales said. “Every day that passes, people continue to be exposed. So it’s really important that, not only that the Department of Public Health develop the standard but that they do so quickly.”

The Department of Public Health has been working on a proposed standard for chromium-6 in tap water. The agency said in an emailed statement that its “dedicated efforts to establish a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium continue as it awaits the final form of the court’s order.”

The agency said it’s unclear how soon the formal court order will be finalized and signed by the judge.

Chromium exists in two forms in nature: chromium-3 and chromium-6. Chromium-3 is found naturally in foods at low levels. Chromium-6 is the more toxic form, and while it can be naturally occurring, it can also be a component of industrial waste released into the environment.

The National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded in 2008 that chromium-6 shows “clear evidence” of causing cancer in laboratory animals. But some subsequent scientific findings call into question at what levels and under what circumstances the metal may cause cancer.

“We have been waiting for a drinking water standard for more than a decade in California,” said Renee Sharp, EWG’s director of research. “It’s time that our drinking water got cleaned up.”

Drinking water in the Coachella Valley contains varying levels of chromium-6, ranging from no detectable amounts to levels of more than 20 parts per billion, said Steve Bigley, director of environmental services for the Coachella Valley Water District. He said those levels are safe and well within the existing drinking water standard, for all forms of chromium, of 50 parts per billion.

“We’re meeting all the current standards, and if that standard is reduced in the future, we will meet that standard also,” Bigley said.

He noted that the agency treats water in an area near the Salton Sea to reduce arsenic levels, and that the treatment also removes chromium from the water in the area. The water district also is participating in two studies examining technologies for removing chromium-6.

“The district will be well prepared to meet whatever new drinking water standard is set,” Bigley said.

Ian James can be reached at and on Twitter at @TDSIanJames.