Talk about a fish out of water

THE following fish story is too bizarre to be anything but true:

There’s a blue gill in a fresh water lake in North Carolina that can’t reproduce if something called selenium is in the water.

Scientist then universally ordered that water discharged into “the waterways of the United States” can’t contain selenium at concentrations above 5 parts per billion (that’s with a “b,” an amount so small it’s tantamount to a grain of salt in a vat of water). Selenium, a naturally occurring metal, is not harmful to humans even up to 10 times that concentration.

There’s this government agency called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that’s in charge of enforcing the Clean Water Act, which goes back to the fish in North Carolina and the selenium levels.

What does this fish have to do with us folk who live in urban Los Angeles County? Here’s where the fish tale begins to rot from the head.

That same EPA, based of course in Washington, enforces what is called the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), better known as the Superfund law. The idea is to clean up polluted waterways to standards set by the EPA.

Here in Los Angeles County, the naturally occurring metal is popping up in discharge water coming from a ground-water treatment plant – an EPA-approved Superfund site – in the Puente Valley. Not to belabor this, but the Valley has had polluted ground-water since the first stain
of carcinogens were found in a well in Irwindale in 1979 – more than 30 years ago. OK. Back to our fish story. The ground water is pumped and cleaned to drinking water standards using carbon and ultra violet light, then sent along Puente Creek (near Whittier), down the San Gabriel River and after blending with millions of gallons of other water, to the Pacific Ocean. But the treatment process – set to reach full tilt in about six months – recently came to a screeching halt (everybody now, all together) BECAUSE OF THE SEX LIFE OF A FRESH WATER FISH IN NORTH CAROLINA.

Another way of looking at this is like a science fiction movie, “When Two Laws Collide!” Under CERCLA, the ground-water cleanup was coming along swimmingly. Northrop Grumman had agreed to pay for the cleanup! There were no more nasty court fights. No more fingers being pointed. In fact, the corporate giant wanted to get cleanup underway and done asap because time is money. But cleanup of the underground Superfund site was not OK via the Clean Water Act. And the agency responsible for enforcing both of these laws – the EPA – wasn’t aware of the discrepancy.

“The left hand and the right hand weren’t talking,” said Grace Kast, Water Quality Authority executive director.

What’s a conflicted government bureaucracy to do?

Well, before you summon visions of FEMA and Hurricane Katrina, we must give EPA a chance to redeem itself. The good folks at the WQA, which was formed by the state Legislature to expedite ground-water cleanup and return our aquifer to a pristine state, wants the EPA to grant Northrop a temporary waiver to allow cleanup to continue while new solutions are explored. One solution could involve piping the discharged water as reclaimed water for parks, cemeteries and freeway medians. But that would take more pipes, a capital outlay of another $16 million. To treat this water with advanced “reverse osmosis” would cost another $20 million.

Many are asking, why spend $20 million to help a fish’s progeny, a fish that is not even in our waters? Some are asking for a biologist to study what would happen to our fish here in the San Gabriel River if discharges with 7 parts per billion of selenium are allowed.

There’s a chance that this fish story could have a happy ending. Otherwise the cleanup of our aquifer – the Valley’s water lifeline – could be caught on a stray hook that will take years to untangle.

Banks don’t give gifts anymore

36513-Funny dollar and Irwindale station sign 2010 001.jpg

This “Santa dollar” was given out by the now defunct Home Federal bank, which according to Angela Carter of West Covina, was once located behind the K mart on Orange Avenue.

In journalism school, professors teach you not to become friends with sources. It’s a mindset that’s served me well these past 29 years.

Not so easy to do with letter writers.

They are a passionate breed. People who want so much to get their opinion “out there” that they’re willing to go public and even face opposition. They know the art of cajoling you to print their letter.

I respect that, a lot. I used to tell my young journalism students that “friendly nagging” is a good habit to nurture for a reporter or a public relations person. I was used to that because I have an Italian mother.

Milford Walker of West Covina was all of the above. Passionate. Colored unmistakably by a definite point of view. And a bit of a nag, to be honest.

So when he would call, I didn’t always look forward to it.

“Steve, I don’t want to take up too much of your time,” was the polite way he would start every conversation. It usually led to me hearing his well-informed opinion on such issues as unions, health care, government or the automobile industry. By the time we were done conversing, I had learned a lot and couldn’t care less about the deadline that had just passed (though my bosses could!).

Milford passed away on Dec. 29. He was 82. And although it has been less than a month, I miss his pointed calls and compassionate stances.

“He was always up and ready for a debate,” said his widow, Melba, who spoke to me by phone Thursday.

Former West Covina Mayor Nancy Manners sent me an e-mail about her remembrances of Milford. They met in 1984 during a precinct walk when she was running for City Council. He told her he wanted a ban on fireworks and Manners picked up the mantle. Eventually they were banned by a vote of the people. “When we prevailed I was his hero forever,” she joked.

Milford worked for Ford Motor Co. in Pico Rivera. During his retirement, he would write letters to the editor urging us to buy American cars. “… what better way to start showing your fellow neighbor you care for him or her? What better way to fly the American flag?” he wrote in a published letter about a year ago.

He was an unabashed union booster who was greatly upset over the recent failures of the American automobile industry. He supported universal healthcare and was a big fan of filmmaker Michael Moore, especially his movie on the topic, “Sicko.”

“He was a very dedicated Democrat and he didn’t care who knew it,” Manners told me. A liberal in the early 1980s in West Covina was much more of an anomaly than today, when Democratic voters outnumber Republicans. Yet Walker held to his convictions even though “he was willing to listen and learn from opposing views,” Manners wrote.

Milford always had trouble working computers and had a friend e-mail his letters these last few years. I pray now he’s sitting at a computer posting links with ease while advocating for the working man.

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Letter writer Angela Carter remembers the old Home Federal bank in West Covina behind the K-mart on Orange Avenue. When it went out of business, the tellers handed out “limited edition Christmas Dollars” (see photo above) and she mailed one to me in its original envelope. The legal tender was “adorned with Santa’s smiling face” affixed over Washington’s headshot.

Her handwritten note melted my heart: “I was thinking back to your column about your mail carrier dad and his pockets full of Christmas cards that he would let you open. I wanted to send you one of these so maybe as he looks down from heaven, he can watch you open this card.”

Maybe those J-school profs were wrong.

Obama blasts critics

“It is not time for partisanship, it is time for citizenship,” said President Obama during a 12-minute speech on the security lapses resulting from the Christmas bombing attempt aboard a Northwest Airlines jet in Michigan.

Without naming names, he clearly was aiming his latter comments at former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has found a way to criticize and lead a partisan wave of attacks against the president during a time of war.

It’s too bad that we can’t get back to what we had in the months after 9/11, a country that was working together, not trying to destory each other from within. I agree with Obama, but of course wonder if his words will have any impact.