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Toxic Taps

California’s Plan to Tackle a Carcinogen Widespread in Water

Decades after declaring 1,2,3-TCP a carcinogen, California is finally regulating the toxin. But the cost of remediation will be high and communities are turning toward litigation to pay for water treatment.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
Fields of carrots are watered in Kern County, California. Numerous water suppliers in Kern County have found the newly regulated contaminant 1,2,3-trichloropropane in drinking water. It’s believed to have migrated into groundwater in this area after use in agricultural pesticides.AFP/FREDERIC J. BROWN

If you drive Highway 99 through California’s Central Valley, you’ll pass through the heart of farm country, where the state’s bounty blooms with hundreds of crops – everything from peaches to pistachios, from tangerines to tomatoes. You’ll also pass through dozens of communities, large and small, whose water systems are tainted by a newly regulated contaminant, 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP), which for decades was used in agricultural fumigants injected into farmland across the Valley.

On July 18, the State Water Resources Control Board unanimously voted to adopt a drinking water standard for regulating TCP, a manmade chemical the state designated as a carcinogen a quarter-century ago. As a result, water agencies will soon have to start testing for TCP in their water, and those that can’t take contaminated wells out of service or blend the water with cleaner sources will need to construct costly treatment systems. For smaller and low-income communities, the added expense could be more than ratepayers can bear. Water systems may need to spend anywhere from $22,668 to $473,740 per year to meet the new standard, according to State Water Board estimates.

Water agencies and environmental groups hailed the move by the State Water Board to establish a maximum contaminant level (MCL). “We applaud this important step to protect Californians impacted by 1,2,3-TCP,” said Phoebe Seaton, codirector of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, which works on economic and environmental justice issues in the San Joaquin Valley. “The challenge that remains, however, is securing the funds and resources necessary to help impacted communities and residents gain access to treatment mechanisms.”

The maximum contaminant level was set at 5 parts per trillion, which is the lowest level that can be detected with current technology. Felicia Marcus, the board’s chair, called it “a very important day for public health.”

The day was a long time coming, though. TCP has been in California groundwater for decades and even though the state identified the chemical as a carcinogen back in 1992 it wasn’t until 2009 that the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal for TCP. But that goal of 0.7 parts per trillion was just a recommendation, not a regulation, based on the office’s review of the scientific literature.

Mayor of Arvin Jose Gurrola stands outside the Arvin Community Services District office where residents can fill up bottles of filtered water for drinking. Arvin has been out of compliance with arsenic regulations for years and is likely to be out of compliance with newly regulated contaminant 1,2,3-trichloropropane. Bottled water filling stations are offered as an interim solution to provide clean drinking water. (Tara Lohan)

To put that number in perspective, 1 part per trillion is 1 gallon per 1 trillion gallons. So the new MCL of 5 parts per trillion is the equivalent concentration of dumping about 200 gallons, about the size of kiddie pool, into Lake Tahoe – a lake so deep you could submerge the Empire State Building in it. This threshold is to ensure a theoretical cancer risk of less than 1 in 143,000 for those who are exposed to TCP in drinking water over their lifetime.

State Water Board member Steven Moore called TCP an “insidious chemical” because it persists in the environment, sinks in water and is harmful in tiny doses. According to the State Water Board, short-term acute exposure can burn the skin and eyes. Breathing TCP can cause irritation of the throat and lungs and affect concentration, memory and muscle coordination. Long-term exposure in drinking water may damage the liver and kidney and increase the likelihood of tumors in multiple organs. TCP has been shown to cause cancer in animals and is believed to be a cancer risk for humans.

With the new MCL of 5 parts per trillion, basically any water system in California that finds detectable levels of TCP has a problem – an expensive one. It’ll cost nearly $500 million to comply with the standard over the next 20 years, according to state estimates.

There are 103 water systems with at least one well containing TCP above 5 parts per trillion, affecting close to a million people, according to state data from 2015. The highest detections were found at 10,000 parts per trillion.

In California, TCP is thought to come from two sources – either industrial sites where it was used as a cleaning solvent and degreaser or in soil fumigants to control agriculture pests. It’s this latter source that is proving to be the biggest challenge in California and the reason why so many affected communities line the corridor of the state’s biggest agricultural valley.

The California Manufacturers and Technology Association and the American Chemistry Council submitted public comment saying the proposed standard is not economically feasible.

To meet the new MCL, many utilities will need to install costly treatment systems – and this has spurred a line of lawsuits that also stretches the valley. Many of these lawsuits, aimed at the manufacturers of the soil fumigants, Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, have dragged on for years. But the new MCL may help prompt a speedy resolution of the litigation. Without the MCL, the companies had argued it was hard to assess what level of TCP would constitute damages.

From Superfund to Farm

TCP first became a concern in California in the late 1980s after it migrated into water supplies from a toxic Superfund site at a former Lockheed Martin facility in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles.

“It’s now Bob Hope Burbank Airport, but it was a Lockheed Martin airport,” says Tony Umphenour, water quality analyst at Burbank Water and Power. “It wasn’t just an airport, they made planes for World War II and other stuff, and back in that day, they didn’t know what to do with waste, they just thought ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Years later we find it, and it’s a problem we have to clean up.”

With financial help from Lockheed Martin, the Burbank water agency has been running a state-of-the-art treatment facility to remove the TCP and other contaminants from its water, according to Umphenour.

Water suppliers across the state subsequently began testing for TCP and soon a problem emerged in the Central Valley.

San Francisco attorney Todd Robins represents 30 cities suing Dow and Shell over their manufacture of soil fumigants applied to farm fields in California for decades, beginning in the 1950s to kill tiny worms called nemotodes. By the end of the 1980s one of the products had been taken off the market and the other reformulated to remove TCP.

During their heyday, the Dow and Shell products were “two of the most widely used soil fumigants in California” according to a 1983 report from the State Water Board’s toxic substances control department.

Robins says the TCP cases involving Dow and Shell are unusual. “In environmental cases, typically causation is the biggest hurdle to overcome, proving where the contamination came from, who’s responsible for it,” he says. “With TCP in the Central Valley it really is about as straightforward as an environmental tort case could be. In a rural area like the Central Valley there is really only one possible source of 1,2,3-TCP – if you find it in a well it came from the use of soil fumigants.”

Dow did not respond for requests for comment. Shell said in a statement that the company would “continue to vigorously defend the claims made against it in lawsuits initiated by water purveyors” and that its fumigant “was a highly beneficial product used by farmers … although this product contained trace amounts of TCP, it was approved for use by the U.S. government and the state of California.”

These “trace amounts” have drawn ire. Internal company documents uncovered during litigation show that TCP was not an active ingredient in the fumigant; one memo from a Dow scientist referred to TCP as “garbage” ingredient. “They knew early on they had something in their product that was unnecessary and was toxic,” says Andria Ventura, toxics program manager at the environmental group Clean Water Action.

Cleaning the Water

One of the water wells in Del Rey, California, sits next to a produce packing house. Del Rey’s water has tested over the maximum contaminant level for the newly regulated contaminant 1,2,3-trichloropropane, and the settlement will need to install a filtration system on its wells. (Tara Lohan)

Carlos Arias is happy about the new regulation. As the district manager who oversees the water system for the rural community of Del Rey in Fresno County, Arias has been fielding questions from concerned residents for the last few years about whether their water is safe to drink.

Del Rey, population 1,700, found TCP in its wells in 2012. And Arias has been telling residents who ask that a lifetime of drinking the water comes with a higher cancer risk. But now, with the new MCL, he hopes that the community will be able to obtain enough money to pay for the necessary treatment system. Del Rey is one of the communities suing Dow and Shell.

“Unfortunately, this community is very, very disadvantaged economically, so unless we get assistance from the state or we end up getting this case settled, we won’t have the money to fix it,” he says.

In the only TCP case to go to trial so far, a jury in December 2016 ordered Shell to pay the city of Clovis $22 million. The San Joaquin Valley city of 100,000 previously settled with Dow for $7.5 million.

Several other cities have settled out of court, but dozens more, like Del Rey, are still awaiting a resolution of the litigation.

Arias hopes the MCL will give the district more leverage in its litigation, because raising water rates high enough to cover the costs of a treatment system would be difficult, he says. In Del Rey more than 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. “It’s such a disadvantaged community. You see people working out in the fields – they can’t make enough money. We cannot put the burden on the utility users to come up with that money to solve this problem.”

But he notes that with a lack of funds to finance water treatment, the community will be out of compliance with the MCL soon.

Starting in January 2018, the state’s 4,000 public water systems will need to begin testing quarterly for TCP, and compliance will be based on the average of four quarters of sampling. But Mark Bartson, the head of the Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water’s technical operations unit, said that areas with extremely high levels may test out of compliance in a single quarter.

For smaller, disadvantaged communities, getting the treatment systems designed, built and funded in less than a year’s time will be all but impossible. Depending on the level of contamination, some water systems may be able to blend contaminated water with cleaner sources to meet acceptable standards. Some may be able to simply take impacted wells out of service if they have other water sources or cleaner water from different wells. If neither of those are an option, granulated activated carbon systems that function like a giant Brita filter are the recommended technology.

Raul Barraza Jr. believes his community will be quickly out of compliance with the new regulation, too. Barraza is the general manager of the Community Services District in Arvin, which sits at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, about 20 miles south of Bakersfield.

Arvin, a mostly Latino community of 20,000 is also economically disadvantaged. The median household income is $35,000 a year.

Barraza supports the MCL but hoped the state would allow more time for compliance. “I don’t think anyone would agree that six months is ample time to engineer a filtration system for your water system, there is just no way – unless you just had one well.” Arvin has eight wells and most are contaminated with TCP, he says.

“It’s easier for bigger cities to deal with it than for a small community,” he explains. “You are basically taking the cost and dividing it among the number of connections – we have just about 4,000 connections. Compare that to Bakersfield where they are looking at 40,000 connections.”

Initial compliance for bigger communities may be easier but costs will still be high.

In nearby Bakersfield, the municipal water system and a private company, California Water Service, supply the city’s 400,000 residents.

Art Chianello, the water resources manager of the city water service that serves 143,000 people, says it’ll cost an estimated $55 million to comply with the standard because 41 of the city’s 64 wells exceed the MCL. The city will pay part of the cost through revenue bonds and has begun the process of notifying customers of a proposed rate increase of 40 percent over the next two years.

The city is also involved in litigation against Shell and Dow to recoup costs. “Any and all proceeds would go to pay for these costs – that’s what we’re hoping for,” Chianello says. “We’re in the thick of the process with the contractor and purchasing equipment so we can continue to be in compliance with all the MCLs.”

California Water Service, which operates in six service areas impacted, will install granulated activated carbon treatment systems to clean TCP-contaminated water in three of the areas – Bakersfield, Visalia and Selma – according to Yvonne Kingman, the company’s corporate communications manager.

The company is also a plaintiff in litigation against Dow and Shell. “We’re seeking to recover the cost of treating for the TCP, and the purpose of that is to avoid impacting customer rates,” Kingman says, noting the company expects to meet the MCL when monitoring begins.

Despite the short timeline for rolling out the MCL, Arias still believes it’s in the best interest for Del Rey. “I think our community will have more confidence in the water they are drinking. It will make it easier for us to run the district,” he says. “Once we have those filters running, I know we are delivering good quality of water.”

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