A three-mile long and one-mile wide toxic plume in the Chino Groundwater Basin contains trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent used in the 1940s through 1970s and known to be linked to cancers, neurological disorders, birth defects and other medical problems. Residents in the area that typically rely on well water, due to lack of access to the City’s water distribution system, have been receiving deliveries of safe drinking water by truck. While the California and federal government safe drinking water standard for TCE is five parts per billion, some areas of the plume have concentrations as high as 35 parts per billion, and at the heart of the plume concentrations are more than 10 times the health standard. Despite the longstanding concern over the public health risks, negotiations over the Plume’s cleanup had proven challenging due to the legacy nature of the pollution and the multiple parties that may have been involved. A Cleanup and Abatement Order issued in 2005 by the California Regional Water Quality Board, Santa Ana, had not produced a settlement to the pressing water quality issue.
In 2013, WaterNow Alliance member and Board President Steve Elie of the Inland Empire Utility Agency (IEUA) decided to try a different way to address the problem: a multi-party agreement and cleanup order including IEUA, the cities of Ontario and Upland, Aerojet, Rocketdyne Inc., Boeing Co., General Electric Co., Lockheed Martin and the United States. Following several years of discussion and previously unsuccessful negotiations, and notwithstanding IEUA’s position that it has no liability for the plume, IEUA stepped forward to do the right thing for the region and offered to fund significant cleanup infrastructure costs. Leveraging $10 million in state and federal grants and over $200 million in existing infrastructure to jump-start the $12.5 million agreement, initially pledging its own funding to backstop the agreement at the same time it submitted state and federal grant applications to cover these costs. The remaining $2.5 million has been provided by the United States and private companies with facilities or former facilities in the Chino Groundwater Basin. The project is expected to initiate cleanup in 2018, with full cleanup of the Plume expected to take 20-30 years. Sale of the treated water is expected to support the ongoing costs of the cleanup.
Legacy pollutants are frequently allowed to languish despite the harm they cause because of the factual and legal complexities associated with assigning responsibility for the creation of the problem and the subsequent cleanup. President Elie was not willing to allow that to continue within the Chino Groundwater Basin. His leadership in focusing on a common-sense strategy that leveraged both local infrastructure and state and federal funding partnerships for the cleanup of the Plume made a critical difference for the community while demonstrating more sustainable water solutions for all of California.
Image from the Daily Bulletin.