– Water officials say they want to work cooperatively with the
company responsible for the area’s perchlorate contamination – as
long as Olin Corp. will cooperate quickly – but Santa Clara Valley
Water District CEO Stan Williams said Tuesday that the process is
moving too slow.
Gilroy – Water officials say they want to work cooperatively with the company responsible for the area’s perchlorate contamination – as long as Olin Corp. will cooperate quickly – but Santa Clara Valley Water District CEO Stan Williams said Tuesday that the process is moving too slow.
“We think the normal regulatory process that the Regional Board is undertaking takes too long,” Williams said. “It’s not their fault, but it needs to move faster.”
And a petition filed last week by Olin will only slow the process further, if only for a couple of months. Olin has asked the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to show cause for its order that the company conduct further testing on the so-called northeast plume, contaminated groundwater that flows north of Olin’s former road-flare factory on Tennant Avenue in Morgan Hill.
In its petition, Olin contends that it has “established by convincing and credible substantial evidence a reasonable scientific certainty that it is not (and could not be) responsible” for the northeast plume, and should not have to undertake a new, expensive forensic testing method to confirm that the contamination is from another source.
The petition will be heard either at an upcoming Regional Control Board directors meeting or at a special time in front of CEO Roger Briggs. If the Board denies the petition, Olin can appeal to the State Water Resources Control Board, and ultimately, in court. Briggs said Tuesday that the first hearing might be as late as March, but that the 10.5 plume stretching south and west of the factory site is the Board’s “highest priority in the region.”
“The petition is not a huge deal,” Briggs said. “We anticipated it because we’re really pushing this case. There are going to be times when Olin thinks we’re pushing too hard, and in some cases they might be right.”
To push as hard as they can, Water District officials last month presented their own cleanup plan to the Regional Board, which they hope will constitute a substantial part of the cleanup plan that Olin must eventually prepare. The plan calls for Olin to conduct more testing to determine the exact parameters of the plume and sets a 20-year timetable for complete cleanup of the groundwater.
But the plan has come under criticism from agriculture officials for not overtly calling for more monitoring of agriculture wells and a risk assessment of the crops that are irrigated with contaminated water. Of the 62 farm wells in the contaminated area, 26 have tested at perchlorate levels greater than 6 parts per billion. Olin is currently providing water to home owners whose wells test at those levels, but is under no obligation to supply water to similarly-contaminated ag wells.
“This is being treated as the second priority because there are a lot of unknowns,” said Greg Van Wassenhove, the agricultural commissioner for Santa Clara County. “The first priority is drinking water. Ag well water goes through plants and we don’t how much is taken up by plants or ingested.”
To date, no agency has conducted testing to determine the potential harm of perchlorate turning up in the food supply, but a study released late last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found perchlorate in lettuce and milk in all 15 states it tested. While it’s not known with certainty which crops are at greater risk for perchlorate contamination, it is known that some fruits and vegetables will accumulate perchlorate with each new irrigation.
And without an alternate water supply local farmers are forced to tend their crops with contaminated water.
“We’re concerned about how consumers will react to the perceptions that our region’s fruits and vegetables are in a perchlorate region,” Van Wassenhove said. “That’s why we need a risk assessment.”
Van Wassenhove has been lobbying the Water District to include an assessment in it’s plan. District spokesman Mike DiMarco said Tuesday that a complete scrubbing of the groundwater means that the water in ag wells will be perchlorate free.
“A risk assessment is not something we can request,” DiMarco said. “We can only request that they restore the groundwater basin to its condition before contamination. That’s why there’s no specific language in the plan about individual wells or ag wells, or risk assessments.”
Briggs said that the Regional Control Board could order Olin to perform such an assessment, but it’s not likely. The Board would wait to see Olin’s cleanup plan before deciding the company needs to prove that the food supply is safe, Briggs said. “But this is not strictly a local issue, so it would be unusual for us to say that we’re going to establish that number in a individual study on a local level.”
Eventually, the Regional Control Board will issue a formal cleanup order to Olin. Briggs said Tuesday that it was too soon to predict when that order will be made.