California Becomes First In The Nation To Propose Chromium-6 Safe Water Limit

Published on

California became the first state in the nation on Thursday to propose a safe-water limit on cancer-causing chromium-6, made famous in the film “Erin Brockovich.”

The California Department of Public Health proposed a maximum contaminate level — or MCL — of 10 parts per billion for the carcinogen, which gained notoriety after residents of the High Desert town of Hinkley won a settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric over well water tainted by chromium-6. The number will be posted for public comment starting a noon Friday on the department’s website.

The department will have public hearings in Northern and Southern California on Oct. 11.

It might be as long as two years before the proposed limit — which is one-tenth the federal limit — becomes an enforceable number.

It is possible the proposed MCL will not be what the state actually adopts.

The current California maximum contaminant level is 50 parts per billion of total chromium.

Several environmental and health activists were disappointed with the number that the Legislature ordered the state’s regulators to develop by Jan 1, 2004.

“This is a step forward, but it is nowhere near where it should have been,” Brockovich said in a telephone interview.

PHGs are concentrations of contaminants in drinking water that pose no significant health risk if consumed for a lifetime.

The proposed MCL “is 500 times greater than the public health goal,” she said, referring to a figure set by another state agency that is designed to pose no significant risk if consumed for a lifetime.

Brockovich said that the gap between the public health goal and the draft MCL is so large it is in violation of the California Health and Safety Code, which requires the Public Health Department to establish a maximum contaminant level that is “as close as is technically and economically feasible to its public health goal.”

But the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association noted that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment notes that the public health goal is not a boundary line between safe and dangerous, and that drinking water can still be considered acceptable for pubic consumption even if it contains contaminants at levels exceeding the public health goal.

People should care about the level of chromium-6 that California allows in its drinking water “because it’s your water and the water your children are drinking,” Brockovich said.

“Chromium-6 is a problem in California and around the nation and the world,” Brockovich said.

Other chemicals have been regulated effectively, “but industry is pushing back on chromium-6 because the clean-up costs are potentially so great,” Brockovich said.

“People shouldn’t just assume that the California Department of Public Health has their back because they don’t,” she said.

Dissatisfaction with the Public Health Department’s performance in the arena of water quality regulation is so great that Oakland-based Clean Water Action is supporting Assembly Bill 145 by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, which would transfer administration of the drinking water program from the Public Health Department to the State Water Board.

Well-monitoring data collected in California show that chromium-6 is in 51 of the state’s 59 counties, said Andria Ventura, a spokeswoman for Clean Water Action.

Liza Tucker, consumer advocate with Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, said that California has a long history of tough environmental laws with poor enforcement.

The proposed MCL shows California is more concerned with the costs of clean-up than human lives, Tucker said.

State public health officials said that capital investments needed along with the ongoing costs of operations and maintenance are estimated to be $156 million annually for public water systems statewide to comply with the new standard.

Jeff Smith, spokesman for PG&E, said the state’s announcement “is an important step, and we hope this will provide some peace of mind for Hinkley residents.”

“We think this is a critical piece of information” for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board to look at for future requirements related to whole household water replacement systems, Smith said.

PG&E developed a sophisticated resin-based water purification system that must meet the Lahontan’s requirements to bring chromium-6 down to no more than .06 parts per billion.

State public health officials note that while the agency was to have proposed an MCL by the first day of 2004, the public health goal for chromium-6 in drinking water, of 0.02 parts per billion, wasn’t established until 2011.

“This is at least much better than what we had,” said Daron Banks, a longtime Hinkley resident who sits on Hinkley’s community advisory board.

Hinkley’s polluted groundwater is the result of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. operations at a natural gas compression station that opened in 1952. From the opening until 1964, PG&E periodically would dump chromium-6 laced water from cooling towers into unlined pits, during an era where the cancer risks of this chemical were not known.

From the unlined pits, chromium entered the Hinkley groundwater.

Banks said that from a health perspective, he would have liked to have seen the MCL closer to the public health goal, which was set at 0.06 parts per billion, by another state agency in 2011.

But the public health goal only considered heath ramifications, while the maximum contaminant level also considers costs to public water systems and technology issues.

“I think for safety and public health, we need to bite the bullet and make everybody’s water safe” with a number that is nearer the public health goal,” Banks said.

The Public Health Department will review the chromium-6 standard every five years, department officials said in a statement released Thursday.

“As technology improves, the standard may be changed,” the department said.

Banks said that in time he expects the MCL to move closer to the public health goal of 0.06 parts per billion.


Jim Steinberg covers the city of Fontana for The Sun and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Reach the author at [email protected] or follow Jim on Twitter: @FontanaNow.

Latest Videos

Latest Releases

In The News

Latest Report

Support Consumer Watchdog

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, press releases and special reports.

More Releases