SACRAMENTO (CN) — For more than 15 years the city of Vacaville has known that nearly half of its groundwater wells contain high levels of a naturally occurring carcinogen that inspired the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.” The city has three more years to bring its water up to state standards.
California in 2014 enacted the nation’s first drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6. Now with Vacaville, in Solano County 55 miles northeast of San Francisco, plotting the final pieces of a multimillion-dollar chromium 6 removal plan, environmentalists are demanding that the city stop telling its 92,000 residents that their water is safe.
In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, California River Watch claims that Vacaville violates federal hazardous waste laws by delivering hexavalent chromium through its water pipes to residents’ taps.
“The city’s transport of chromium 6 in this case creates an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment,” the complaint states.
River Watch wants the city to pay civil penalties for each day it’s violated the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, to provide new sources of potable water for pregnant and elderly residents, and acknowledge publicly that water contaminated with chromium 6 can cause cancer.
“To our disbelief and dismay, public and private suppliers of water here in California and nationwide, once considered unimpeachable utilities, are failing to ensure the health and safety of the water sold to an unsuspecting American community,” the complaint states.
River Watch’s attorney Jack Silver in Sebastopol did not respond to an interview request Tuesday.
California enacted a chromium 6 standard in 2014 and gave cities until 2020 to comply with the rules. While the national standard for total chromium is 100 parts per billion, California regulators set the threshold at just 10 parts per billion.
The contaminant occurs naturally in rocks and soils and is used to make stainless steel, paints and plastics. Prolonged exposure to chromium 6 increases the risk of lung cancer and asthma, particularly when it’s inhaled.
Recent tests revealed that five of Vacaville’s 11 groundwater wells exceed the new state standard, two of which have been in operation since the 1970s. One well test measured 24 parts per billion.
The city says there are no known cases of chromium 6-related cancers due to Vacaville’s groundwater and that the carcinogen occurs naturally in its water supply.
The city gets it water from nearby Lake Berryessa, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and 11 groundwater wells.
“The city’s drinking water is completely safe for our customers to use,” the city reiterated in a statement.
To comply with the 2020 deadline Vacaville plans to install chromium 6 filters valued at more than $1 million per well to some of its wells.
“The city is taking steps to provide water with hexavalent chromium at or below the maximum contaminant level. However, adding hexavalent chromium removal treatment systems to the wells will take considerable time and money,” Vacaville public information officer Mark Mazzaferro said in an email.
In 2012 California became the first state to pass a law recognizing the human right to clean water. Since then, many of the state’s counties and water suppliers have struggled to extend the legislative right to its residents.
State data show that 292 public water systems are still out of compliance with California water quality standards, most of them located in the state’s agricultural hotbed, the Central Valley. The data do not account for water supplies contaminated with chromium 6, such as Vacaville’s five wells.
More than 3,500 households are reporting water shortages, largely because of dry or contaminated wells.
Residents of the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount this month sued seven metal finishing factories for allegedly polluting the city with chromium 6. The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit hired the environmental law firm Girardi Keese, which defended the chromium contamination case made famous by “Erin Brockovich.”
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