July 10, 2008

Rialto Officials Optimistic About Solving Water Problem

By Jason Pesick

RIALTO - City officials who head efforts to clean up a massive water contamination problem in the city emote something new these days: optimism.

More than a decade after perchlorate and other industrial chemicals were discovered in the local drinking water supply, members of the City Council say a resolution may be in the not-too- distant offing.

"You don't know which tool is going to be most effective, and frankly I think it's a combination of them," said Councilwoman Winnie Hanson, a member of the council's perchlorate subcommittee.

After spending $26 million on perchlorate-related expenses, last month the city was able to dismiss a federal lawsuit that would have begun in December and been expensive to carry out.

Now the parties are in settlement talks, though a confidentiality agreement makes it difficult to find out how those talks are going.

Perchlorate is a chemical used to produce explosives, such as rocket fuel. It is flowing for miles through the underground water supply from an industrial site on the city's north end.

Though the city's Water Department and the other major water purveyor in the city, the West Valley Water District, treat contaminated water before serving it, the contamination could cost $200 million or more to clean up. Perchlorate interferes with the functioning of the thyroid gland and could be a particularly potent threat to pregnant women, unborn babies and children, scientists say.

In addition to the settlement talks, the Environmental Protection Agency is well on its way to declaring the source area of the perchlorate a Superfund site. EPA's involvement is important because the agency often intimidates suspected polluters. If they don't comply with its order, EPA can recover up to three times the cost of doing the work.

A number of factors made Rialto's decision to dismiss the lawsuit and enter settlement talks possible, said Scott Sommer, the city's lawyer handling perchlorate matters.

First, San Bernardino County, one of the potentially responsible parties, agreed to settle with the city and clean up the western portion of the contamination.

Second, a state lawsuit similar to the federal one has not yet been dismissed, though no trial date has been set. The existence of the state lawsuit means the suspected polluters' insurance money is still in play.

Third, Rialto officials sensed the suspected polluters were interested in serious settlement talks.

Fourth, Rialto can refile its suit within a year if the talks don't work.

Finally, EPA has become more active at the site and would demand a similar cleanup to the one Rialto - as well as Colton - sought in the lawsuit.

"I think the EPA being more aggressive and getting more involved gave us a better comfort level in dismissing the lawsuit," said City Councilman Ed Scott, the other member of the perchlorate subcommittee.

The effort to get EPA involved in Rialto required a lot of lobbying, local officials said, including a March letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

Feinstein said in a statement Wednesday she plans to meet with Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri again soon about the issue.

(c) 2008 The Sun, San Bernardino, Calif.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.