Even as Alhambra residents receive about 80% of their water supply from below the city, many are unaware that our groundwater aquifer is contaminated. The damage is so extensive that in 1984 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed it a Superfund site – a designation reserved for the most contaminated sites in the nation. That sounds very scary, but Alhambra residents should not be alarmed: Our water is treated prior to getting to our taps, and studies to date tell us we should not get sick from drinking it. Still, the long-term health effects of some of the contaminants are not fully known even if they adhere to government set standards, which means we need to continue to be vigilant in cleaning up the Superfund site and preventing the type of contamination that created it.
Alhambra’s groundwater is stored in the natural aquifer consisting of alluvia and bedrock. The amount of water which can be naturally stored in the local aquifer (also called the Alhambra Pumping Hole) is on the order of hundreds of millions of gallons. This is a vitally important asset for the city: It would take a reservoir with the footprint of a football field and 4.5 miles tall to hold the same amount of water.
The most prevalent contaminants present in our groundwater supply are a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrates. VOCs in our aquifer include tricholoroethene (TCE), which originates from solvents used in industrial processes; tetracholoroethene (PCE), which originates from dry cleaning chemicals; and 1,2,3-tricholoropropane (1,2,3-TCP), which is contained in pesticides, solvents, and sealants. Nitrates, ubiquitous in our aquifer, originate from fertilizers and are no doubt the result of our agricultural history.
Contamination levels detected in Alhambra’s untreated groundwater supply.
Alhambra’s groundwater exceeds maximum contaminant levels by as much as 1000 fold in some cases. As a result, the city must treat its groundwater after it has been pumped to the surface to remove contaminants. In some cases, Alhambra has shutdown those wells that are too contaminated or too far from a treatment facility to be economically usable.
So is the water in Alhambra safe to drink? The short answer is yes. But the definition of safe levels can vary and depend on many factors, not all of which are health-related. Cost-benefit analyses and the current government administration and their policies on the EPA are also factors. Maximum contaminant levels can vary from state to state. For example, Massachusetts has a maximum level for perchlorate, a contaminant originating from rocket fuel and dry cleaning chemicals, of two parts per billion while California’s level is six parts per billion. In addition, depending on the conclusion of health effects studies, maximum allowable levels may be reduced in the future. So what may be considered safe levels today may not be considered safe in the future.
Also, there are the occasional violations in maximum contaminant levels which get by the treatment process and end up making it to the public’s tap. A list of such violations may be found from the Environmental Working Group or the Environmental Protection Agency. By law, Alhambra must list such violations each year in its consumer confidence report. The 2009 report shows a short term violation for nitrate levels above the MCL as well as an excess of 1,2,3-TCP above the public health goal. In 2004, a drinking water well had an excess of TCE above the maximum contaminant level and that well was taken off-line as soon as the city became aware of the violation.
The health effects of these short-term excesses are not known. But high doses, or small doses over a long period of time, have been linked to liver and kidney damage, compromised immune systems, fetal development problems, blue-baby syndrome, hemorrhaging of the spleen, and cancer of the lungs (TCE), liver (PCE), and thyroid gland (perchlorate).
The cost of treating our groundwater is high. The city received grant funding and no-interest loans from the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and the Water Quality Authority to build a treatment facility totaling $13M. But what never ends are the operating and maintenance costs which are about $750K each year.
Residents have not seen dramatic increases in their water bills due to these grants and operation and maintenance funding from the Water Quality Authority. But another reason is due to the water conservation efforts of the residents themselves. By using less water, the city does not need its full allocation of groundwater as prescribed under its pumping rights. The leftover allocation is sold to other cities for a hefty gain made possible by the temporary lifting of a rule prohibiting such sales by the adjudicating agency, the San Gabriel Valley Watermaster.
The groundwater supply is vital to Alhambra. If the above funding sources were not available, the city would face public outcry if they tried to pass along the cost to consumers, which would more than quadruple their current water bills. And if future health studies find that maximum contaminant levels need to be reduced further, the enterprise-based city utilities department would likely need bond measures to retrofit treatment facilities or essentially go bankrupt.
Through the efforts of the U.S. EPA and the Los Angeles Regional Water Control Board (state), potentially responsible parties for the groundwater contamination are being identified. Some companies no longer exist, but those that do will be held accountable if found to be actual sources of the contamination. Businesses that the EPA believes may be liable and who have been sent preliminary notices include the following: Valley Cleaners near the intersection of Fremont and Valley; LSI, formerly Agere Systems, Inc.; Ideal Iron Works; Pemaco Metal Processing Corporation; Los Angeles County; Johnson Controls, Inc. also known as IAP World Services, Inc.; and AECOM Government Services, Inc., formerly known as Holmes and Narver Services, Inc.
Ultimately, the solution is to clean up this contamination. The cost should be paid, at least in part, by those responsible for creating it. The EPA is helping to determine those responsible parties and bring them to the bargaining table. But this will not happen without an engaged and vocal public.
We have not been vocal enough: It’s been over 26 years since we’ve been deemed a Superfund site. This status should have been changed long ago. A main reason is a lack of community outreach and open discussion. Most residents do not know that we are a Superfund site. The city has done close to nothing to change this. During the recent investigation process, the only comments received by the EPA from the city related to an objection over the use of the word “Alhambra” in describing the Superfund site. Attracting businesses and people to Alhambra is vital, and openly discussing our contamination problem may be bad PR, but doing nothing could be toxic.
Over these 26 years, we’ve seen changing thresholds for safe contaminant levels as well as the discovery of existing contaminants that were unable to be detected with past technology. Along the way, we’ve been drinking the water.
For more information, see the EPA’s website.
Eric Sunada, in addition to being a community contributor for the Alhambra Source, is the executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Oversight Group. To get more involved or for more information you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (626) 589-0440.