Usually-business-friendly Orange County fought a futile 10-year battle to have a string of manufacturing companies pay for cleaning up groundwater they contaminated for decades. Now, the county has turned to the federal government for assistance and may wind up with a Superfund designation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking over the cleanup of toxic chemicals in the county's North Basin that is threatening to contaminate 270 square miles of aquifer, the county's main source of water. The Orange County Register said the EPA is considering a Superfund designation for the 5-mile-long plume of perchlorate and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) spreading beneath Anaheim and Fullerton.
So far, the contamination is considered limited and under control. Three drinking wells and one private well are ruined and 100,000 acre-feet of water are impacted, according to an April presentation to elected officials by the Orange County Water District (OCWD) about its enlisting of the EPA for help. But the plume is spreading into the principal aquifer.
Around 2.4 million people in 22 cities rely on that aquifer for drinking water. That's nearly one city for every site of contamination noted by the OCWD in its presentation. The district tried to sue a bunch of them and more—and pretty much got skunked by the courts. One judge said come back and seem me when someone gets harmed and another questioned whether the right culprits were being pursued.
Northrop Grumman, Aerojet-General, AC Products Inc., EDO Corp., Mark IV Industries, Fullerton Business Park, MAG Aerospace Industries, Fullerton Manufacturing Co., American Electronics, Fender Musical Instruments and a host of other companies were named in lawsuits that failed. What little that was recovered in settlements was spent on legal bills. Estimates vary, but the cleanup could cost around $200 million.
The water district had four “Key Messages” for the politicians: the water is safe, they really need a cleanup, it's going to be expensive and “ratepayers shouldn't have to pay the entire cleanup costs.” The district admitted that its failure to snag Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) in court has something to do with its decision to approach the EPA.
The federal agency has some experience in cleaning up toxic messes, they have the authority to compel compliance and they can often “persuade” PRPs to pay some of the costs.
Superfund status for the basin would not mean the water can't be used for drinking water. The Register pointed out that Southern Californians drink 90 million gallons of water from Superfund sites. And remedial cleanup success does not mean that the water is cleaned of toxic material. That can take decades, if it’s ever achieved. The aim is to get below legal limits of toxicity as determined by the ever-changing science and politics that govern them.