The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Orange County Water District (OCWD), and the California Dept. of Health (CDPH) hosted a presentation on November 14th at the Main Library’s Community Room about the North Basin Groundwater Cleanup Project.
The proposed cleanup concerns a toxic plume of chemicals that have seeped into the aquifer from decades-past manufacturing processes in an area containing city owned production wells that provide water for 2.5 million people, supplying 75% of the water for North Orange County. The plume has affected three city-owned production wells (for a total of five in the area).
Map showing the plume, which is located in south Fullerton and north Anaheim.
Several government agencies including the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), Orange County Water District (OCWD), California Water Boards, and Fullerton’s own water department were present to provide information and answer questions about their activities with regard to the cleanup.
The latest map of the plume, which has spread since the last map was created in 2013.
The purpose of the community meeting/open house was to discuss ongoing site activities, including site investigation, the proposed addition of the site to the Superfund’s National Priorities List (NPL), ways to evaluate the risk to public heath, and outline opportunities for community involvement.
The meeting was opened by Fullerton City Councilmember Bruce Whitaker, who represents the City of Fullerton on the OCWD Board. Whitaker stressed the importance of clean water to the local populace and stated that his goal was to make sure that Fullerton was working closely with the OCWD and EPA.
The OCWD has already filed lawsuits against some identified polluters, but until the project is designated as a Superfund site, the courts will have no established proof of culpability for specific locations of pollution sources within the overall site.
Caleb Schaffer from the EPA gave a presentation on the plume and his agency’s role in clean-up.
Caleb Shaffer, Section Chief of the EPA’s Superfund California Cleanup Branch, Region 9, showed a Composite Groundwater Contamination Map illustrating where chlorinated solvents from metal plating and machine shops had percolated into the groundwater as a plume. He characterized it as a “common scenario,” with a technical complexity comparable to others among the one hundred or so sites managed by the agency across the state.
Following the first step of a Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection, he explained that the site is currently being considered for placement on the National Priorities List, which is the second of nine steps in “The Superfund Process.”
Because the water from the wells is considered a “critical resource,” steps three and four, Remedial Investigation (RI) and Feasibility Study (FS), respectively, are concurrently underway as well.
EPA continues to review public comments, but no final decision has yet been made about whether or not to declare it a Superfund site. Meanwhile, OCWD has already stepped in to investigate because of the urgent nature of the migrating contaminants. RWQCB is handling specific individual sites within the polluted area.
OCWD’s hydrologist Dave Mark next explained that Fullerton has lost production wells because of chemicals seeping into the sediment. These wells have been replaced by newer, deeper ones.
Monitoring wells are also being drilled around the area, including in neighborhoods, and in LaPalma Park, as part of the agency’s Remedial Investigation (RI), half of which is being paid for by the state from a Prop. 1 grant, and Feasibility Study (FS). About eighty wells have been installed, including some for the purpose of trying to determine the northern edge of the plume. OCWD is working toward an Interim Remedy and a Remedial Action Plan to be considered by EPA.
OCWD hydrologist Dave Mark discusses his agency’s role monitoring and cleaning up the plume.
Danny Kwon, a Research Scientist from the CA Dept. of Public Health (CDPH), then explained that his agency would conduct a Pubic Health Assessment in coordination with the DTSC, evaluating potential exposures, which can come from direct contact with pollutants, or by ingesting or inhaling them. He noted that exposure itself wouldn’t necessarily lead to a health impact.
CDPH works with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), to answer concerns and evaluate potential public health impacts, past and present. Contaminants invade the ground as “soil gas” between the tiny particles of soil itself. The exposure assessment would be based on the amount of contaminants present, as well as toxicity of each and the frequency and span of exposures. Public comments will also be included in the final health assessment. “We rely heavily on community engagement,” he said.
Several members of the audience had questions, including the Observer’s Jesse La Tour, who expressed concern that the process for making public comments was “cumbersome,” which might lead to only those with financial interests against the Superfund designation likely to make the final effort to express opinions about it. Public comments and scientific research would be weighed “equally,” in the final decision, he was told.
Another resident spoke of his daughter developing an autoimmune disorder, and asked whether chemicals other than those described in DTS handouts would be the subject of water tests.
Bev Berryman asserted that the plumes have been known locally for at least forty-two years, and asked whether or not the individual plumes had blended together over time. The OCWD’s Dave Mark confirmed that some areas not contaminated ten years ago are now contaminated because the plumes have indeed moved and co-mingled. Although the chemical plumes are less dense than water, they have by now worked their way down deeper and dissolved into the groundwater.
Following the presentations, audience members were invited to speak individually with representatives of the various agencies still hosting tables in the auditorium. At that time, Bruce Whitaker commented to a small group of lingering residents that he wished that the presentation had stressed that the area’s drinking water is safe. (Water quality testing is done regularly by the OCWD) He also thought the map used by EPA to illustrate the current state of the polluted area seemed to be a simplified one showing a large “blob” rather than the individual co-mingling underground plumes. EPA Section Chief Shaffer confirmed that “all drinking water meets federal and state standards,” and that the map presented was a “generalized” one. The final assessment will include more detailed maps.
Danny Kwon from the California Department of Public Health speaks to a resident about the plume.
A Brief History of the Contamination
The November 14 community meeting was the latest in a series of steps taken to stop a toxic plume of chemicals from contaminating our local water supply.
In June of 2014 the OCWD held a special meeting in Fullerton to inform residents about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) “known to cause cancer” in the northern portion of the groundwater basin or North Basin. At that time, three of Fullerton’s water production wells had already been shut down because of the plume of contaminants that had spread from the source site soil into the shallow aquifer, and into the principal aquifer from which drinking water is pumped.
At that time, OCWD was already collaborating with state and federal agencies. State agencies were working to identify and clean up source sites where there is the highest concentration of VOCs and OCWD was following the National Contingency Plan (NCP) process for evaluating and implementing cleanup. OCWD was taking the approach that responsible parties must be part of the solution.
In April 2015 the Fullerton City Council was informed (in a “Receive and File” Consent Calendar item) that the OCWD had installed six extraction wells and a pipeline and had begun their first cleanup effort for a portion of North Basin. The item stated that the council had been briefed by OCWD in 2007 and 2012 about the contaminant plume.
In June of 2017 OCWD requested that letters be sent to Governor Brown asking him to send a recommendation to the EPA to list the North Basin plume on the National Priority List. The council voted four to one in favor of sending the letter, with Jennifer Fitzgerald voting against it, and instead requesting to “table the item.” Theresa Harvey penned a letter on behalf of the North Orange County Chamber of Commerce opposing the council support of EPA’s help in the cleanup. Assemblymember Quirk-Silva sent a letter in support of the EPA’s involvement directly to the Governor.
OCWD installing a monitoring well on Wilshire Ave behind the police station in September 2018.
The EPA’s current approach is that the site is a significant enough threat that clean up must be done now, regardless of whether the responsible parties can be identified. For more information, go HERE
Protect local journalism – please subscribe to the print edition or online edition of the Fullerton Observer. All editions are free, but subscriptions keep us printing, distributing, and posting the paper. Annual subscription is only $39/year. It only takes a minute – Click Here To Subscribe. Thank you for your support for the Fullerton Observer. Click here to view a copy of the print edition.
As someone who grew up and spent a good chunk of my adult years in Fullerton, I can attest to the fact that the North Orange County Basin “plume” has been known about for at least three decades.
When the EPA declared the MCCOL site a Superfund site, were they not supposed to clean up the water contamination too? To hear that the Superfund status of the North Orange County Basin (water table) is still under deliberation after all these years strikes me as utterly irresponsible and ridiculous.
My Mom tested negative for breast cancer genetic links in 2016 yet was treated for breast cancer after living in Fullerton for over 40 years. My siblings and I grew up less than five miles away from the old Hughes Aircraft site and some of us stayed in the area until we were well into our 30s. One sibling ended up with Non Hodgkins Lymphoma (stage 4!) when she was still in her 30s. (She lived less than two miles from the old Hughes Aircraft at the time, which is where the contamination was said to be — but authorities always denied that the plume was dispersing throughout the water table as a whole, something I strongly, strongly suspect was not accurate.) In any case, there was no family history of NHL!
Orange County, on the whole, has a reputation as the nation’s “breast cancer cluster” capitol. I have had several brushes with cancer and I haven’t even hit 50 yet. Could drinking contaminated water for 30-plus years of my life have anything to do with it? This water table is said to serve ~22 million people in Orange County, including the entirety of the Cal State Fullerton campus. My own recollection is that this “plume” was first publicized in the daily newspaper that served the Fullerton area before the OC Register and the Fullerton Observer came along. That’s a long, long time ago! How much LONGER does it take for the County, if not the EPA, to clean up the water supply for 22 million people?
One of the reasons why our national health care costs are so out of control is that Americans are, by in large, a very sick bunch compared to our counterparts elsewhere in the developed world. When you think about the dozens of communities — major cities, even — around the country that can’t even take lead-free water for granted, it becomes easy to appreciate why so many people are chronically health disadvantaged. It is said that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women in their lifetimes are expected to get cancer per the World Health Organization. Cleaning up our air is one thing — but our water, especially in the fracking era, is more endangered than ever (i.e. the “Halliburton loophole” and, thanks to President Obama’s efforts to promote energy independence, largely exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act). It’s time to prioritize the basics: clean air AND clean water.