Nearly 50 claims filed against SLO County over TCE contamination

by David Sneed, originally posted on April 11, 2016


Forty-eight residents of southern San Luis Obispo have filed claims against San Luis Obispo County for allegedly polluting their domestic wells.

All of the people live in the Buckley Road area and have been exposed to well water contaminated by the solvent trichloroethylene or TCE. The claimants either own homes or live in homes in the Buckley Road area. About 20 households have filed claims.

John Fiske, an attorney representing the claimants, said he expects the county to reject the claims, at which time a lawsuit will be filed against the county. The claims say the county was negligent in its management of the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, which is a possible source of the contamination.

“We have six months to file the lawsuit after the county rejects the claims but we’ll do it much sooner than that,” Fiske said. Calls to residents with contaminated wells were referred to Fiske.

The claims say that, during the 1960s, the county dumped toxic chemicals including but not limited to TCE, waste solvents, lubricants and fuel on or around the airport. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has given the county a deadline of Friday to submit a work plan detailing how it will search the airport property for the possible source of TCE contamination.

The contamination was discovered in October when a resident off Buckley Road noticed an odor from his well water. The county Public Health Department issued a public health alert in December and has sent letters to those with contaminated wells advising them of the problem and urging them to install charcoal filtration systems to remove the TCE from the water.

State water officials say they have tested 64 wells in the Buckley Road area and found 12 exceeded the state threshold for TCE contamination. The airport is considered a possible source of the contamination because TCE was used as a solvent in the aircraft industry before it was phased out in the 1970s because of its toxicity.

The airport is uphill of the contaminated wells and the TCE could have flowed downhill from the airport. Airport officials have said they do not think the airport is the source of the contamination.

The claims do not contain a monetary sum but say the damages could exceed $1 million per claimant. The claims say the contamination has resulted in property damage, diminished property values, cleanup costs, medical monitoring, bodily injury and emotional distress.

The claims also frequently include the cost of treating the well water with reverse osmosis systems, carbon filters and chlorination. The cost of such treatment systems is typically about $11,000.

The county has been served with 48 claims, but the number of claims could eventually rise to more than 50.

“At this time, the county is in the process of reviewing the claims and will then determine an appropriate response,” said San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal.

TCE is a colorless, volatile, nonflammable liquid that has a sweet solvent or chloroform-like odor, county health officials said. However, odor is not a reliable method for detecting TCE in drinking water, because people cannot smell the contaminant at levels near the state limit.

Long-term exposure to TCE can cause liver or kidney damage and may pose an increased risk of cancer.

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