City, Environmentalists Duke Out Chromium 6 Water Woes

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Depending on the luck of the draw or even where you live in Vacaville, a city of 100,000 located 55 miles northeast of San Francisco, the water coming out of your tap contains what some scientists claim are high levels of the carcinogen that inspired the film “Erin Brockovich.”

Nearly half of Vacaville’s groundwater wells test positive for hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6. The city, state regulators, environmentalists and now a federal judge know it.

But the remaining questions for U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller to answer are whether the tainted well water qualifies as hazardous waste, and should the city be warning pregnant women and others that their water is potentially unsafe to drink?

The answers are yes, an environmental group suing the city argued Wednesday during its motion for summary judgment before Mueller in Sacramento.

“This is a serious problem that has gone largely unrecognized,” said Jack Silver, attorney for plaintiff California River Watch. “People don’t even know they’re living next to a high chromium 6 well.”

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.

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 its drinking water is “completely safe.”

The city has known about the issue since at least 2001, when the state began requiring water suppliers to test for chromium 6, and it says it’s in the process of spending millions toward cleaning up its supplies. According to its website and court papers, chromium 6 occurs naturally in its wells and “not a result of any industrial pollution.”

River Watch claims Vacaville is pumping the groundwater and combining it with the city’s “pristine” surface water supplies. The group says the city is at fault for delivering the dirty water, spreading chromium 6 to thousands of homes, schools, businesses and hospitals. It also contends that part of the chromium 6 contamination is caused by industrial businesses near city wells. 

Because the groundwater at issue tests below the federal limit for total chromium, the environmentalists and residents are not suing Vacaville under the Safe Drinking Water Act – instead claiming violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The plaintiff’s tactic is unusual to say the least: “There’s no case on all fours here,” Judge Mueller acknowledged during an 80-minute hearing.

Mueller’s eventual order will largely boil down to whether the chromium 6-tainted water falls under the umbrella of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which is intended to regulate the disposal of hazardous waste.

River Watch is pushing Mueller to take a broad interpretation and find the chromium 6 is an unwanted byproduct that survives the city’s water purification and delivery process. It wants the city to pay civil penalties for each day it’s violated the 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.

Vacaville’s outside counsel Gregory Newmark says the claim fails for a variety of reasons, namely that the water doesn’t fit the definition of solid waste nor has the drinking water been discarded. He accused River Watch of trying to push an “extreme expansion” of the act and said it should be taking its chromium 6 beef up with state and federal regulators.

“This case is about the safety of drinking water and River Watch doesn’t like the way the state and feds are handling it,” Newmark, of the firm Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, said. “Vacaville has been very transparent and forthright.”

After California enacted a chromium 6 standard in 2014, Vacaville began making plans to install expensive filters for the problematic wells. Vacaville’s wells at issue have registered chromium 6 levels between 10 to 24 parts per billion.

Since the federal lawsuit was filed in 2017, a judge has tossed the state’s chromium 6 standard of 10 ppb. The state’s current total chromium standard is now 50 ppb – it’s in the process of adopting a stricter one – while the federal standard applied in every other state is 100 ppb.

Mueller, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010 and the first female judge to serve in the Eastern District of California, did not say when she would issue her written order. She denied Vacaville’s motion to dismiss the case in September 2017.

The environmentalists say it’s time for the city to either clean up or shut down the wells.

“It’s certainly hazardous waste and there is imminent risk to people that are exposed,” Silver said. “It’s a toxic compound that is being transferred into homes.”

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