State agency unveils new chromium-6 limit in drinking water

By Jim Steinberg, The Sun

California is gearing up to begin enforcement, on July 1, of the nation’s first standard for the cancer-causing chemical made famous in Hinkley and the film “Erin Brockovich.”

The Department of Public Health on Tuesday submitted its final regulation package putting a cap on chromium-6 to the state Office of Administrative Law, for review under the Administrative Procedures Act.

“The drinking-water standard for hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) of 10 parts per billion will protect public health while taking into consideration economic and technical feasibility as required by law,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, CDPH director and state health officer.

That legally enforceable standard replaces one that was already the strictest in the nation, but for total chromium.

The current California sets 50 parts per billion total chromium as the maximum allowable in drinking water. This amount includes both chromium-3, which is not a carcinogen and necessary, in small amounts, to human life, and chromium-6, an atomic relative that has been shown to cause several types of cancers.

The federal standard, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 100 parts per billion for total chromium, which is chromium-3 and chromium-6.

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas   Electric Co. is developing an action plan to more actively remediate the world’s largest chromium-6 plume beneath Hinkley, 10 miles west of Barstow.

For several years PG E has been providing bottled water to some Hinkley residents and providing a costly whole household replacement system to others who have had trace levels of chromium-6 showing up in their groundwater.

Part of this program was ordered by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency which is overseeing the Hinkley groundwater clean-up.

But PG E has expanded its water program beyond that.

As a result of the CDPH standard, PG E will be re-evaluating its programs and has already notified Hinkley residents of that plan, said Jeff Smith, a PG E spokesman.

Not one Hinkley resident is believed to have well water at or exceeding the state’s new chromium standard of 10 parts per billion, officials from the water board, PG E and the Hinkley community say.

Kim Niemeyer, an attorney for the Lohontan board, has said that the state agency has no authority to order PG E to provide replacement water to residents whose chromium-6 content is below the state standard for drinking water.

But Carmela Spasojevich, a former resident who alerted the community to the spread of the chromium-6 plume in 2010, disagrees.

“I do not believe it is the intent of the state water board to let polluters contaminate groundwater up to a MCL (maximum contaminant level) without repercussion, especially when water quality pre-contamination is documented,” she said.

Now a resident of Virginia, Spasojevich still owns property in Hinkley and has many friends there.

“This decision is clearly politically based, and Sacramento had a lot of pressure from lobbyists of both industry and public works officials,” said Daron Banks, a Hinkley resident and community leader.

“This decision is clearly based on economics and not science. The cost of bringing this (chromium-6) down from 10 parts per billion to 2 parts per billion is miniscule,” Banks said.

“It is clear that California is no longer the environmental- and people-protecting state,” Banks said.

Ian Webster, owner of Project Navigator Ltd., an environmental engineering firm based in Brea which is the scientific adviser to the Hinkley community, said he will argue that PG E goes slowly in any changes to its water programs and will recommend that trend analysis be conducted to determine what likelihood — if any — that an individual’s well water will exceed 10 parts per billion.

The new state MCL will not effect an ongoing multimillion dollar study to determine what part of the chromium-6 in the Hinkley valley’s underground water supply was put there by PG E and what part was put there by nature.

California water laws will require PG E to clean up the groundwater to its condition before the arrival of its natural gas compressor station in 1952.

The toxic plume beneath Hinkley is the legacy of 12 years of operations, from 1952 to 1964, when chromium-6 at PG E’s natural gas compressor station was periodically dumped into unlined ponds and percolated into the groundwater.