June 19, 2008

Water Talks Start Soon; Suit Dismissed As an Aid

By Jason Pesick

A federal lawsuit filed by Rialto and Colton to get dozens of parties to clean up local water contamination has been dismissed so the parties can try to work out a settlement.

The case, originally filed by Rialto in 2004, involves perchlorate and other industrial chemicals contaminating the underground drinking-water supply.

"The parties, plaintiffs and defendants are in settlement discussions," said Gene Tanaka, Colton's lawyer. "We're very hopeful that we can resolve the contamination issue and get the basin cleaned up."

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Philip Gutierrez signed the order dismissing the case without prejudice. Mediation starts Sunday in the San Francisco Bay area, and if it falls apart, the parties can return to court.

Perchlorate, which can interfere with the thyroid gland, and industrial cleaning chemicals are flowing underground from industrial sites dating back to World War II on Rialto's north end.

The defendants in the federal suit included the Defense Department, a defunct division of Black & Decker, Goodrich and a number of fireworks companies.

A number of the parties involved, including San Bernardino County, which already has settled with Rialto and Colton and is cleaning up some of the contamination, had claims against each other in the case as well.

Most of the parties involved in the federal suit are also part of a similar state suit on hold for 90 days.

The cases have been part of a web of legal and regulatory cleanup processes that also include the state and regional water boards and an effort to name the site part of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program.

Those processes have not come to an end but may if a settlement can be reached.

"The parties agreed to attempt to achieve what has been called a global resolution, which means all claims by all parties," said Bob Wyatt, a lawyer for the Black & Decker division.

EPA officials would evaluate any settlement and decide what the agency's role would be if one were reached, said Superfund Project Manager Wayne Praskins.

"I'd expect it would change if a settlement was reached," he said of the agency's role.

Ongoing settlement talks by some of the suspected polluters and the staff of the Riverside-based Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board could be merged into the new talks, which have been taking place for months informally. Formal talks should begin Sunday in the Bay Area.

The effort to clean up the contamination has not been cheap. Rialto has spent about $25million on water treatment, research, legal and other perchlorate-related expenses, said Councilman Ed Scott.

Colton has spent more than $7million that has not been reimbursed, Tanaka said.

The county has spent $5million in legal fees, the same in settlement payments to Colton and Rialto and may spend $40million to $60million to clean up contamination in the next few decades, said spokesman David Wert.

"I think we're well on our way to negotiating an extremely satisfactory cleanup, and if that fails, the EPA will step in and we'll refile our lawsuit," Scott said.

The Rialto Water Department will be able to stop charging customers a perchlorate fee if a settlement is reached, according to a city news release.

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