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Calif. City in Eye Of Perchlorate Pollution Storm

Hard-Hit Rialto Worries About Its Water

Aug 11, 2003 | Washington Post Janitors conducting a termite inspection at J.P. Kelley Elementary School last February found a five-foot-long missile beneath the auditorium stage. Over the past 50 years, thousands of missiles were manufactured in the city, and the Army stored thousands more here.

Given the city's past, and that the missile was not armed, authorities were not necessarily surprised or alarmed by the discovery; school officials say they believe the missile was left over from an old show-and-tell program. But that doesn't mean missiles have a benign history in Rialto, a city of nearly 100,000 people 60 miles east of Los Angeles. For missiles, armed and not, contain rocket fuel, and within rocket fuel is perchlorate.

The chemical allows combustion and has many uses, from space shuttle rocket boosters to road flares. But it also has been proved to inhibit the production of growth hormones in fetuses and young children. At high levels, it can cause thyroid cancer.

Officials have found perchlorate in 319 wells in California, but nowhere is harder hit than Rialto. The city relies solely on groundwater for its drinking supply, while other California communities have alternate sources. Five of Rialto's 15 wells have been closed because of perchlorate contamination.

The timing couldn't be worse. Drought is lowering water levels, and water is being drained from the system for the construction of a new freeway into town.

"We're the perfect storm of perchlorate pollution," said Bradley Baxter, the city's director of public works. "We're 76 percent minority with a median household income of $45,000, and we're on the verge of tremendous growth because of the freeway. We get 50 calls a week from people who want to build homes, offices or warehouses that will create jobs, and right now we're worried we can't accommodate them because we're going to run out of water."

Rialto has called for voluntary water-use reductions of 30 percent, which will quickly become mandatory if they aren't met.

Last month, the Defense Department decided it would test perchlorate cleanup technologies in Rialto and several other Southern California cities. The move was praised by environmentalists as a good first step to resolving the problem, especially because the Pentagon had earlier decided it would not test all of its facilities for perchlorate contamination.

During World War II, the Pentagon operated the Rialto Ammunition Storage Point, the primary West Coast way station for arms shipments out of Long Beach. Although the Pentagon did not admit responsibility for the perchlorate contamination, the move represents a new tack in its approach to the pollutant, which may have penetrated groundwater at hundreds of U.S. installations.

"We don't have our arms around the full extent of the problem, but we need to demonstrate cost-effective treatments," said John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for the environment. "We expect the lessons learned here to be used across the country."

Before announcing the test program, the Pentagon had said it could take no action on perchlorate until the Environmental Protection Agency set a maximum contaminant level for the chemical in drinking water.

The maximum level is a matter of dispute between the EPA and Pentagon. The EPA's initial analysis is that perchlorate is safe at levels lower than 1 part per billion, while the Pentagon believes it is safe at levels of as much as 200 parts per billion. The levels in Rialto range from 4 to 80 parts per billion. The final decision on an acceptable level is crucial because it would set a standard for regulatory action and determine how much the Defense Department and its contractors are likely to pay for cleanup.

Environmentalists say it could take years until the standard is established and are frustrated at the delay.

It's "very shortsighted," said Erik D. Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's like taking embers and trying to hide them; they're only going to burn. This issue is going to explode when the facts come out."

Because of the test program, Rialto is holding off on suing the Defense Department, but it is considering more than a dozen lawsuits against private companies that it believes are responsible for the contamination, which could cost as much as $100 million to clean up.

In three cases in California, perchlorate cleanup has moved quickly in response to legal action. Most recently, Lockheed Martin Corp. contributed more than $60 million to clean the drinking water in Redlands and several other cities. The other two cases also involved a single company. But in Rialto, there may be as many as 100 polluters, which will exacerbate the crisis by adding more time and expense.

"Here we have many contaminators, a 50-year evidence trail and a lot of finger-pointing," said Robert A. Owen, city attorney. "That doesn't lend itself to the cooperative solutions seen elsewhere."

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board Santa Ana Region, which enforces water-quality laws, has requested records from 18 companies and government agencies, including the Pentagon, on their activities or field research at sites in Rialto.

Of the private companies contacted, only Goodrich Corp., the maker of the missile found at the elementary school, has agreed to help. Without admitting responsibility, Goodrich said it will contribute $1 million each for well-treatment projects in four area water districts, including Rialto.

"We're not going to raise rates to consumers to pay for perchlorate filtration like other agencies have," Baxter said. "We believe the people responsible for the pollution should clean it up."

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