Polluted Whittier water site to be cleaned as Feds score $78 million settlement

by Steve Scauzillo, originally posted on April 20, 2016


WHITTIER >> Contamination from a shuttered solvent recycling company that had been leaking toxic chemicals for decades will be cleaned up by a group of 66 companies that have agreed to pay $78 million, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

The companies, which were not named, signed a settlement agreement that will begin groundwater treatment in 2017 as part of the cleanup of the Omega Chemical Corp. Superfund Site in Whittier.

“We are happy to see it is moving forward now, before it creates a much larger problem,” said Robb Whitaker, general manager of the Water Replenishment District, on Wednesday.

The treated water will most likely be pumped to a local spreading ground, where it percolates back into the water table. This can help the agencies in southeast Los Angeles County increase their water supplies.

“Today’s settlement ensures the protection of a vital drinking water source for L.A. County,” said EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld, who oversees the Pacific Southwest region.

Groundwater resources are the last defense in a drought, particularly for Southern California where the promised El Niño did not deliver an abundance of rain this past winter and left aquifers throughout the region at historic lows.

“The cleanup of this polluted aquifer is critical because groundwater in the region has been depleted because of the drought,” Blumenfeld added.

Cleanup of the site at 12504 and 12512 Whittier Boulevard, across from residential neighborhoods and less than a mile from several schools, has been ongoing since the chemicals were discovered leaking in 1995, according to EPA records.

Toxic chemicals were found in high concentrations in a 4.2-mile underground plume that stretches from Whittier through Santa Fe Springs to Norwalk.

According to the EPA, among the toxic chemicals found in the soil at the site, or in the groundwater of the Central Basin, include:

• trichloroethane, a chemical solvent that can cause dizziness or confusion if inhaled or touched and has been linked to abnormalities in the liver, kidneys and heart after long exposures.

• carbon tetrachloride, which can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system.

• trichloroethylene, classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA, which in moderate amounts causes headaches, dizziness and sleepiness and may damage the nerves in the face; in higher exposures it can alter the rhythm of the heartbeat.

In the 1990s, the EPA removed up to 2,700 drums of chemicals from the site as well as more than 9,000 pounds of contaminants, the Department of Justice reported. In 2010, the EPA installed a system to extract soil vapors. It also put in a small groundwater pump that treated more than 30 million gallons of contaminated groundwater since 2009.

The site was placed on the federal Superfund list in 1999.

In 2011, the EPA released an interim plan for cleanup that initially included Omega and 24 other companies. That later grew to the 66 companies that will contribute to the settlement and will conduct the cleanup work. In addition, 171 other parties that either sent waste to the site or operated in the area have contributed to the soil and groundwater contamination and will “fund a portion of the work,” the Justice Department said.

The plan calls for the pumping of contaminated water from the underground plume and for treatment. The treated water would be returned to the natural aquifer.

“Water will be cleaned up and put back into the basin, likely through the spreading grounds,” Whitaker said.

The EPA in 2011 said treated water must meet all federal and state drinking standards before being released.

Under the settlement, $70 million will be used to install wells and operate a groundwater treatment system; $8 million will be reimbursed to the EPA for prior work and $70,000 to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

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