No one wants to get cancer from their tap water, but is California about to impose tremendously costly regulations that might not save a soul?
That’s what water agencies across the state are now screaming about the proposal to reduce the allowable amount of chromium-6 in drinking water to the nation’s lowest level. Yelling just as loudly for even lower standards are the environmentalists who complain that California just isn’t going far enough to get “chrome 6” out of the mix.
The chemical, also known as hexavalent chromium, rose to global attention in the 1990s, when legal clerk Erin Brockovich fought for residents of Hinkley, California, against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), whose use of chrome 6 as a cleaning agent was believed to have caused a cancer spike in the region. PG&E eventually paid $333 million to Hinkley-ites, whose story became a popular Hollywood movie starring Julia Roberts, and the resulting public outcry led Sacramento politicians to demand stricter chrome 6 regulations statewide.
More than a decade later, and faced with legal threats over the unexplained delays, the state’s Department of Public Health is on the verge of passing a new standard that, as proposed, would take the allowable levels from the current 50 parts per billion down to 10 parts per billion. (The federal level, meanwhile, is 100 parts per billion.) The rules are expected to go into effect by July 2014, and the state is currently reviewing more than 18,000 public comments submitted on the proposal, many from water agencies worried that the required treatment levels might throw them into bankruptcy or disrupt their ability to provide water to homes, farms, and businesses.
The underlying problem for certain water agencies — specifically in places like the eastern Santa Ynez Valley, where chromium leaches out of the blue-green serpentine rocks of the San Rafael Mountains — is that the 10 parts per billion level is actually less than what nature provides. In the case of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, which serves most of the homes and ranches east of Solvang all the way into Happy Canyon, including the towns of Santa Ynez, Ballard, and Los Olivos as well as the Chumash reservation, the cost of updating to the treatment facilities that would be required to remove the natural chromium could be as anywhere from $10 million to $35 million. Those costs, according to the district’s general manager Chris Dahlstrom, would be “crushing,” amounting to immediate rate hikes of 21 to 60 percent.
“If they enact the law as it is, it would be an immediate requirement to shut down all of our upland wells, and there are some severe consequences of doing that,” said Dahlstrom, noting that those wells provide more than half of the district’s water during peak flow times, and losing them would mean strict conservation measures for existing customers, a moratorium on new users, and perhaps even periodically cutting off agricultural use, which could be devastating for vineyards. “Not only is it a water-supply issue, it’s an economic issue as well,” said Dahlstrom. “This could affect millions of dollars worth of grape production and other farming.” In October, Dahlstrom wrote a letter to the state requesting the level be moved to 25 parts per billion and, if not, allowing either more time or special consideration for small, rural districts like his.
The costs could be even more shocking for residents of the eastern Santa Ynez Valley’s handful of ranchette subdivisions that run their own mutual water companies: in the case of Santa Ynez Rancho Estates, home to nearly 100 ranches and 200 residents, the estimate is $5,000 to $10,000 in additional costs per year per user. “That’s clearly unaffordable,” said Sig Hansen, a resident there who is also vice president of water operations. “Typically, we don’t even pay close to that, not even our biggest users.” But these smaller water purveyors — which also include Oak Trail Estates, Woodstock Ranch, and Rancho Ynecita — have more options, including the ability to install point-of-use treatment facilities, such as reverse osmosis systems, in everyone’s home as an interim solution.
The added costs, which the Association of California Water Agencies has estimated at $616 million statewide, might be easier to stomach if there were clear evidence supporting the 10 parts per billion standards, but Dahlstrom, Hansen, and many other water agency representatives claim that there simply isn’t any. “If this was something truly protecting the public’s health, we’d certainly be advocates, and we strive for that,” said Dahlstrom. “But because we believe that the science is bad, this seems to be all about political pressure.” Hansen agreed, explaining, “Obviously, we’re very concerned about the quality of the water we are delivering, but there’s a lot of skepticism over these requirements, and I think it’s well-founded.”
Hammering the state from the other side are the environmentalists who sued last year to move the new standard forward, namely the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Natural Resources Defense Council, and Clean Water Action. “We think the 10 parts per billion is too high for several reasons,” said EWG’s Renée Sharp, explaining that it’s a known carcinogen, that the level is 500 times the public health goal of 0.02 parts per billion set by the state a couple years ago (which aims to reduce incidents of chromium-related cancer to one in a million), and that chrome 6 is also known to cause liver damage. Pointing to studies done on rats and mice as evidence of its harm and explaining that she hopes California will become a model for the country with these standards, Sharp said, “From our perspective, the prevention of illness is so much more inexpensive than the treatment of it, and this is one way of doing that.”
The state isn’t doing interviews on the proposed standards right now, instead sending reporters to this website and explaining, “Due to ongoing rulemaking and the pending litigation regarding the proposed Maximum Contaminant Level, the California Department of Public Health is unable to provide an interview at this time.” A spokesperson did, however, confirm in an email that the department will “work closely with non-compliant drinking water systems using various tools to help develop a plan to bring the system back into compliance.” Those tools include education on options, technical assistance, and grants and loans to help pay for the new systems.
That promise isn’t doing much to get rid of the funny taste in the mouths of people like Sig Hansen, who’s been drinking the same “chromium-tainted” Santa Ynez Valley water his whole life, just like his mom, who lived to 99 years old, and his wife, who’s been guzzling it since 1982. “She drinks more water than anybody, and she’s perfectly healthy,” said Hansen. “In fact, she looks so good, people ask her what kind of water she’s drinking.”
Come 2014, that water just might be a few parts per billion — and a lot of dollar bills — different.