With attention focused on hot-button water-related topics – drought, groundwater, fish requirements, sinking earth, fallowed fields, domestic wells going dry – here’s one you probably haven’t lost sleep over: chromium 6.
California, which fancies itself at the forefront of environmental issues, last year became the only state to say by law how much of the cancer-causing agent is safe in drinking water. This year, enforcers began slapping violations on communities that might have to spend millions of dollars curing the problem.
In this region, violators are clustered on the Valley’s west side and include Patterson, Newman and Los Banos. Chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, shows up naturally there in soil holding the groundwater that’s pumped and delivered to homes and businesses.
We’re using a public notice template from the state, and they’re saying there is no immediate danger or risk to public health.
Koosun Kim, public works director, Newman
About 70,000 people in those cities and a few other West Side towns will receive notices soon, if they haven’t already. All say that their tap water contains higher-than-allowed levels of chromium 6, although no one can say at what level the heavy metal – which in high doses has been linked to leukemia, stomach cancer, and liver and kidney damage – becomes dangerous.
“It’s the same water that the residents of Patterson have been drinking for 100 years,” said Kendall Flint, an outreach consultant for that city. The new standard “sounds good: we all want to be healthy and happy,” she continued, “but this is truly no cause for alarm.”
A public notice in Patterson tells people “this is not an immediate risk” while acknowledging that “some people ... over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
Chromium 6, an industrial chemical commonly used in manufacturing, rocketed to public consciousness in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts. Accused of tainting groundwater near the Southern California town of Hinkley for three decades, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. paid $333 million in damages and pledged to clean it up.
Spot tests from 1997 through 2008 detected chromium 6 in 52 of California’s 58 counties, or more than 500 communities, including Patterson, Newman, Grayson and Los Banos. Most, if not all, is blamed on the earth and not a result of industrial contamination.
Because heavy metals are hard on bodies, the federal drinking water standard is 100 parts per billion for total chromium; that includes both chromium 3, which is good for breaking down glucose, and chromium 6. California previously halved that level, requiring water agencies to have less than 50 parts per billion of total chromium.
Public attention prompted California to update its rules, and the new standard of 10 parts per billion just for chromium 6 quietly went into effect in July 2014.
As expected, well readings since have landed several West Side communities in trouble:
▪ In Stanislaus County, all seven of Patterson’s municipal wells tested poorly, averaging 19.5 parts per billion of chromium 6 in drinking water, with one well hitting 36 parts per billion in a late 2014 sample. One Newman standby well used to supplement three others in heavy-demand summer months averaged 16.8 parts per billion.
▪ Worst in these parts is Los Banos, where 13 wells averaged more than 30 parts per billion – three times the maximum allowed under the new standard. The highest reading from a single well came to 42 parts per billion.
▪ Wells at Volta and the Morning Star Packing Co., both near Los Banos, showed average levels exceeding 20 parts per billion.
▪ Two wells at the San Joaquin River Club, a riverfront community 18 miles west of Modesto, near Vernalis, averaged 14.6 parts per billion of chromium 6.
All must come clean with water customers about the violations, according to compliance orders from the California State Water Resources Control Board. For example, Patterson will put notices in September utility bills; officials also staged a presentation Tuesday before the City Council.
California has always been forward-thinking. But this will be a bit challenging to these (water) districts.
Kendall Flint, consultant, Regional Government Services
Also, violators must explore ways to reduce chromium 6 and come up with a concrete plan and share it with state enforcers; Patterson’s and Newman’s are due in October.
In a recent council meeting, Los Banos leaders vented at the prospect of being forced to spend up to $40 million cleaning its water.
Patterson is considering coagulation and filtering technology, said Mike Willett, the city’s public works director.
Newman is angling for state grant money, but so are dozens if not hundreds of other water agencies with limited budgets.
“It’s not cheap,” said Koosun Kim, Newman’s public works director. “But it is what it is. We cannot change the regulation, so we’ve got to deal with it.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390
At a glance
Chromium 6, aka hexavalent chromium:
- COMMON SOURCES: Metal plating, leather tanning, wood preservation, textile manufacturing; also occurs naturally in soil and rock.
- HEALTH RISKS: Causes lung, nasal and sinus cancer when inhaled. It’s a probable carcinogen in unknown doses when swallowed in tap water, causing cancer in laboratory animals. Exposure to skin causes severe lesions.
- LOCAL PREVALENCE: Some wells in Patterson, Newman and Los Banos have produced samples exceeding maximum contaminant levels.
- PUBLIC AWARENESS: The 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich” centered on a $333 million settlement from PG&E, accused of tainting a small town’s groundwater.
Sources: California Department of Public Health, California State Water Resources Control Board