In wake of new perchlorate standard, water cleanup efforts could
Gilroy – Water experts and elected officials are concerned that companies responsible for polluting the state’s groundwater will use a report released Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences to lessen their cleanup responsibilities.
In South County, that could mean less liability for the Olin Corp. Olin’s former road-flare factory on Tennant Avenue in Morgan Hill has spawned a 10.5 mile plume flowing east and south through San Martin and into northern Gilroy. If the company is able to use NAS recommendations, it might have to replace and treat water at as few as 20 of the 966 wells it currently services.
Of the 1,614 wells tested in the South County plume last spring, only 257 tested above 6 parts per billion. All but 20 of those tested below the roughly 14 parts per billion level in drinking water that the NAS report suggests is safe for daily human consumption. Perchlorate was not detected in 628 wells.
Including food, the NAS report said that a level of 23 parts per billion is safe.
Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) said Tuesday that “I have concerns that anyone will draw a premature conclusion, but I’ve worked so closely with the people of San Martin and Morgan Hill that I have a hard time believing they’ll be pushed into a conclusion by something that isn’t supported by good science.”
And water officials stressed that California law requires Olin to cleanse polluted groundwater to immeasurable levels.
But in the past, Olin has used government recommendations to support its position and check its responsibility. Tracy Hemmeter, a project manager with the Santa Clara Valley Water District said Tuesday that the company might do so again.
“They continue to provide water, and we think they have to under state law,” Hemmeter said, “but the NAS report probably will be fuel for Olin’s fire.”
As it stands, the state public health goal for drinking water is 6 parts per billion. A spokesman from the California Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the goal, said Monday that the NAS report, which suggested that water is safe at levels as high as 14 parts per billion, will influence the state’s new goal, but shouldn’t lead to any “radical” changes.
A different agency, the Department of Health Services, will set the drinking water standard, known as the maximum contaminant level, or MCL. The DHS will set the standard independently of the public health goal, but can not go lower than the goal.
Olin spokesman Rick McClure said Monday that his company will “continue to do the right thing,” but David Athey, who oversees the Morgan Hill site for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said any change in the public health goal is likely to be used by Olin to cease providing at least some bottled water and well-head treatment.
“I think anyone in their position would do that,” Athey said. “My guess is that they’ll evaluate any options they think the report gives them.”
Olin is currently providing bottled water to about 1,000 residents of Morgan Hill and San Martin whose water tests above 4 parts per billion. But it’s doing so under duress. When the public health goal was released last spring, Olin argued that it should not have to replace water that tests below the goal, and in an appeal to the State Water Resources Control Board, Olin accused the Regional Board of abusing its discretion by “unreasonably and prematurely imposing” water replacement requirements prior to the release of an MCL.
Replacement water and well treatment is costing Olin in excess of $1 million a year, the bulk of which would be saved by ceasing cleanup of wells below 6 parts per billion.
San Martin resident Bob Cerutti, whose well tested most recently at 8 parts per billion, said Tuesday that he’s “disillusioned” with the NAS results. “It doesn’t look like there’s enough data to support the increase in perchlorate level they recommend for public consumption.”
Cerutti gets about 15 gallons of water from Olin every week. He thinks that Olin might seize on the report to stop providing water, but like other San Martin residents, believes that state law will supersede the recommendation of any agency.
Athey said Olin’s cleanup responsibility (the company has not yet received an official cleanup order) and its responsibility to provide replacement water and well-head treatment are on two linked but separate tracks. Olin might treat well heads in the course of cleaning groundwater, but it’s possible that the company could accept a cleanup order and continue to fight the water replacement and treatment order.
If scientists and state environmental agencies agree that the perchlorate levels recommended by the NAS are safe, Olin could clean the groundwater to “background” levels, but provide very limited replacement water in the interim.
“I don’t know how probable that is, but it’s possible,” Athey said. “Right now, there are too many unknowns.”
Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy, who is fighting Olin to take responsibility for a perchlorate flume that has drifted northeast of the site, said Tuesday that he doesn’t want to “prejudge what Olin will do” in response to the NAS report.
“I agree that the standard is too loose,” Kennedy said, “but we have to wait until other agencies weigh in on the issue. More information needs to come out.”
Results from 2004 testing on 1,614 wells in Morgan Hill and San Martin.
• Non-detect: 628 wells
• < 4 parts per billion: 377 • 4 to 6 parts per billion: 352 • 6 to 10 parts per billion: 237 • > 10 parts per billion: 20
Olin must provide water for any well that has tested at 4ppb or above
in any one of the four most recent quarterly tests. If your replacement water delivery was stopped, and
you did not receive test results, contact Rick McClure, of Olin, at