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.