By Jim Steinberg – The Sun, Staff Writer
The state affirmed on Thursday its efforts to develop the nation’s first safe drinking water standard for the cancer-causing chemical chromium-6, in the wake of a California court’s order to establish a limit for the carcinogen made famous in the film “Erin Brockovich.”
An Alameda County Superior Court judge on July 18 set an interim deadline for the agency to unveil a proposed standard — or what officials call a maximum contaminant level — for chromium-6 by the end of August.
Chromium-6 is at the heart of the struggle between San Francisco-based Pacific Gas Electric Co. and Hinkley residents, who for years have dealt with chromium-6 in their private water wells, as portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie from 2000.
The ruling left an opening for the state to come back to the court in October to discuss its progress.
Nearly a year ago, several environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force the state to develop a standard for drinking water, alleging the standard was years late in development.
The judge’s order was a response to that.
Results of state water-quality testing between 2000 and 2011 showed that about a third of the 7,000 drinking sources tested had chromium-6 levels at or above a public health goal set by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Current federal and state drinking-water standards revolve around total chromium measurements, which include both chromium-6 and its far less toxic relative, chromium-3. Trace amounts of chromium-3 are essential to sustain human life.
The federal limit for drinking is 100 parts per billion of total chromium, while California has a limit half that amount — 50 parts per billion for total chromium concentrations in water.
California Department of Public Health spokesman Ronald Owens said in a statement Thursday that the agency’s “dedicated efforts to establish a proposed drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) are nearly complete. The regulatory package with the proposed standard is under final internal review, and is expected to be released for public comment in August.”
In mid-July, Owens told a Los Angeles News Group reporter that the agency was on track to announce the draft maximum level of chromium-6 contamination in drinking water by the end of July.
Owens did not immediately respond to questions related to the delay in the long-awaited announcement and whether the court order was a factor.
Jeff Smith, a PG E spokesman for chromium-6 issues, said government affairs officials within the company were expecting a draft water standard to be released in July as the health department had said it would do.
The toxic plume of chromium-6 beneath Hinkley is the legacy of operations between 1952 and 1964, when PG E, in an era before the health hazards of this chemical were known, dumped water containing chromium-6 into unlined pits. From there, it seeped into the groundwater.
“We are just an interested bystander in this process,” Smith said of PG E. “Obviously, we are interested in the number for the draft proposal.”
But it will be just a draft. There will be a comment and review period before a final number is adopted, he said.
State officials have said it could take as long as two years before a draft maximum contaminant level becomes final.
“This is going to be an issue much larger than Hinkley. There are lots of places where chromium-6 out of the tap is measured much higher than in Hinkley,” Smith said.
For the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board — which oversees the Hinkley cleanup — the draft number will mean nothing, said Lauri Kemper, the board’s assistant executive officer.
But when the number is finalized, the water agency in charge of the Hinkley clean-up will enforce it.
Under the California Water Code, the agency has authority to order PG E to clean up Hinkley’s groundwater below the safe drinking-water standard, Kemper said.
PG E can be required to clean up the groundwater to what the naturally occurring — or background — level of chromium-6 was before the company began its Hinkley operations, Kemper said.
A second study to determine what amount of chromium-6 occurs naturally beneath Hinkley is in the early stage of development. The first study was thrown out after a peer review by water experts determined it was flawed in water sampling and statistical techniques.
Daron Banks, a Hinkley community activist said a statewide water standard for chromium-6 will have little effect on Hinkley residents because the water regulators will be more focused on the background level.
But looking big picture, the standard “needs to be very close to the public health goal.”
In July 2011, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment established a public health goal for chromium-6 of 0.02 parts per billion, a number so low it can’t be measured with current technology.
The public health goal is designed to determine a level where human life is not put in jeopardy. In determining the maximum contaminant level, the department of health looks at the public health goal, associated costs and the state of technology to measure chemicals in water.
“The issue is, do we want to be adjusting chromium-6 levels in 20 years or do we want to take care of the problem now?” Banks said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.