City Dodges Lawsuit Over Chromium 6-Tainted Water Wells

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge on Monday squashed environmentalists’ bid to punish a Northern California city for delivering drinking water tainted with the carcinogen that prompted the film “Erin Brockovich.”

The environmental group California River Watch sued the city of Vacaville over its water supply in 2017, claiming it was violating federal hazardous waste laws by providing its 92,000 residents with water containing hexavalent chromium.

The city, located 55 miles northeast of San Francisco, has known about its dirty drinking water for almost 20 years as nearly half of its groundwater wells have tested positive for the carcinogen known as chromium 6. But city officials contend chromium 6 occurs naturally in their wells and that their drinking water is safe for consumption nonetheless.

Issuing her ruling over 15 months after oral arguments took place in a Sacramento federal courtroom, U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller labeled the plaintiff’s case as “ambiguous” and ruled the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act isn’t intended to regulate the city’s water production process. She dashed the group’s motion for summary judgment, granted the city’s and ordered the case closed.

“While it cannot be disputed that hexavalent chromium itself presents a risk to human health, plaintiff here attempts to stretch the RCRA statute well beyond its application, seeking to force a square peg into a round hole,” Mueller wrote.

Featured in the 2000 film starring Julie Roberts, 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.

In 2014, California regulators set strict new standards for chromium 6 in drinking water, but upon review a state judge said officials didn’t “properly consider” the financial impacts of their decision and ordered the creation of a new plan. The state’s current cap on total chromium in drinking water is 50 parts per billion, twice as strict as the federal limit.

Vacaville sources approximately 35% of its water from 11 groundwater wells, with the rest coming from nearby Lake Berryessa and the State Water Project. The city says it plans to spend millions installing treatment systems at the problematic wells.

In briefs and in court hearings, California River Watch accused the city of knowingly spreading chromium 6 by combining clean surface water with supplies from the tainted wells. It urged Mueller to broadly interpret the RCRA — which regulates the disposal of hazardous waste — and order the city to pay civil penalties and pursue new potable water sources.

But Mueller, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010 and the first female judge to serve in the Eastern District of California, decided the chromium 6 that survives the city’s water treatment and delivery process doesn’t fit the definition of solid waste. 

“The court finds no material question of law or fact remains such that a factfinder is needed to resolve whether Vacaville’s collection, treatment and dissemination of potable water containing detectable levels of hexavalent chromium renders its water supply subject to the statutory definition of “solid waste,” Mueller wrote in the 20-page order.

Mueller was careful to note that though she is siding with the city, she isn’t concluding that chromium 6 “poses no threat to Vacaville citizens.”

California River Watch said it was disappointed in Monday’s ruling as it does nothing to prevent residents from continuing to buy and use unsafe drinking water.

“California River Watch is reviewing the court’s decision as to the merits of an appeal, but takes this opportunity to request the city once again take swift action to reduce the level of hexavalent chromium in its drinking water to protect the young, elderly and infirm from this extremely dangerous chemical,” said plaintiff’s lawyer David Weinsoff.

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