Pending Chromium 6 limits worry small water company

November 16, 2011

A gauge on a Kerman water tank shows the tank is nearly full.

By Genevieve Bookwalter

Ken Moore brags about the water quality in Kerman, a Fresno County city of nearly 14,000 surrounded by farmland.

While other Central Valley towns report infamous water problems with nitrates and chromium 6 contamination — issues that include infant deaths, birth defects and cancer — Kerman’s water only needs chlorine added to kill bacteria before it flows through city pipes, said Moore, Kerman’s Public Works Director.

But that situation soon could change as California considers tightening laws regulating chromium 6, a known carcinogen that is an industry pollutant but also occurs naturally in groundwater around the state.

While the amount of chromium 6 in Kerman water now is about half of what California allows, a public health goal released in July recommends an amount thousands of times less than that to protect public health.

As a result, Kerman and as many as one-third of the state’s water agencies could be forced to retool their water treatment strategies, according to state figures. Those improvements, Moore said, could come at significant cost.

In Kerman’s case, Moore said he’d have to install the town’s first drinking water treatment plant.

“That’s dramatic. It’s really ridiculous,” Moore said. “We’d have to vote no.”

California in July released a new public health goal for chromium 6, a carcinogen made famous in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich for contaminating water and causing cancer in those who drank it in the San Bernardino County town of Hinkley.

A public health goal is the recommended drinking-water limit for chromium 6. It is set to ensure water customers who drink two liters each day for 70 years will not develop cancer. A public health goal is a recommendation, not an enforceable limit, but lays the groundwork for developing that limit, state officials said.

California’s current chromium 6 limit in drinking water is 50 ppb. The new goal is .02 ppb. Kerman’s readings hover around 25 ppb, Moore said.

In Hinkley, power company PG&E was accused of contaminating groundwater with chromium 6 after it dumped the chemical, which was used to fight corrosion, into unlined ponds there. PG&E settled for $333 million in 1996.

In Fresno County in 2006, PG&E settled for $335 million in a similar chromium 6 pollution case in Kettleman City.

The state has labeled chromium 6 a carcinogen since 1987, said Sam Delson, spokesman with the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Chromium 6 was included on that year’s list of chemicals identified by Proposition 65, which prohibits them from being dumped into drinking water and requires notification if they are sold in products.

But pressure for a lower chromium 6 limit grew after the Erin Brockovich movie and increased media attention focused on the carcinogen, Delson said. In 2001, the state began creating the public health goal that was released in July.

Now the issue passes to the California Department of Public Health, which is tasked with creating a legal, enforceable chromium 6 limit in drinking water. While the public health goal considers only the well being of water drinkers, the “maximum containment level” also takes into account the cost and effort new regulations would require of water companies.

Ralph Montano, spokesman for the Department of Public Health, said it could be another four years before that limit is finalized, a timeline typical for these types of reviews.

Up to two years, he said, likely will be spent researching what new chromium 6 limits would require from water companies, among other issues. The second two years would be spent holding public meetings, soliciting comments and developing the final rule.

“That is the same process that any other kind of change would have to go through as well,” Montano said. Arsenic, for example, went through a similar process before its legal limit was revised in 2008.

Those supportive of reducing chromium 6 limits acknowledge the new legal standard likely will be higher than the goal of .02 ppb.

“While an ideal enforceable standard would be .02 ppb, Environmental Working Group recognizes the costs on utilities to purify water after pollution, whether from natural or industrial sources,” said Renee Sharp, director of Environmental Working Group’s California office. The environmental group focuses on public health and has been an advocate for tighter chromium 6 limits.

However, “to be health protective, the legal limit would have to be significantly lower than 50 ppb, and as close to .02 ppb as feasibly possible,” Sharp said.
Sharp recommended concerned water agencies contact the state for help with additional or improved treatment facilities.

A bill by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown this month could make that easier. It allows communities to apply for full funding from the state to pay for water treatment improvements that customers can’t afford.

But Moore said his district operates with more money than many of the smaller Central Valley towns, and therefore has a hard time competing for grants. He’s also frustrated after the company about 10 years ago paid to dig new wells to meet the state’s stricter limits on uranium.

Depending on where the new chromium 6 limit lands, “it would drive up the cost of water in this town dramatically,” Moore said. “What they can’t do is put everyone out of business.”

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One Response to Pending Chromium 6 limits worry small water company

  1. aventura

    November 16, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    There is no doubt that a strict drinking water standard can be a financial burden on small water systems and that the State bear’s a responsibility to ensure that they all have the resources necessary to meet those standards. That is why Clean Water Action and our allies have worked diligently at the state level to ensure such funds become more widely available. However, it is disturbing to hear water providers say that a strict standard that is necessary to protect public health is the wrong way to go. Let’s be clear here. Peer reviewed scientific analysis has determined that people drinking water with chromium 6 for an extended period of time at a level over .02 ppb are at a very real risk for cancer and other very serious health impacts. That in itself is an extreme cost to the local community. When you add in the costs of health care, missed work and productivity, and other “external” societal burdens on the taxpayers pocketbook, it is even worse.

    It is unclear how much chromium 6 is in Kerman’s water since the 25 ppb refers to “total chromium” which can be made up of chromium 6 and the less toxic form of chromium 3. However, if the level is higher than .02 ppb, there is a threat to public health and ignoring that threat because of the price of treatment, doesn’t make it go away, Instead it could end up costing our communities more.
    Andria Ventura, Program Manager, Clean Water Action

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