Yay! Just 17 More Years to Clean Up Toxic Groundwater in San Bernardino

Monday, September 01, 2014

Drought-plagued California does a monumentally bad job of keeping track of its groundwater, and is only now beginning to determine who is pumping what where.

It does know, however, a lot about the water sitting beneath eight square miles of land in San Bernardino County, known to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the Newmark Groundwater Contamination Superfund site. Superfund sites are the nation’s nastiest, most polluted places.   

The site consists of two plumes of contaminated water, including chlorinated solvents tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), at the base of the mountains, which have impacted more than 25% of the water supply for 175,000 San Bernardino residents. Both chemicals are suspected carcinogens and aren’t kind to kidneys, livers and the nervous system.

The EPA’s final cleanup plan (pdf), circulated this month, indicates the agency will stay the course it has pursued since the contamination was discovered in the 1980s and expects to restore the aquifer to federal and state drinking water standards in 17 years, or perhaps a little later.

Two water treatment units, Newmark and Muscoy, have been in operation for 9 and 16 years, respectively, preventing contamination from spreading farther and reducing “the extent and magnitude.” San Bernardino Water Department General Manager Stacey Aldstadt told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that about 7.2 billion gallons of water is treated every year.

She said the cleanup is going “very well,” but, then again, “there’s no way to know for sure.”

That’s a mixed message for the 250,000 residents of nearby Riverside who rely on wells downhill from Newmark for 75% of their water. The rapidly growing communities of Colton, Loma Linda, Fontana, Rialto and a bunch of other unincorporated areas also tap water unprotected from the contamination should it spread.  

Pollution at the site probably began in the 1940s when it was home to an Army depot called Camp Ono. They degreased tanks and rail cars there and cleaned up tents for use during World War II. The Cajon Landfill, operated by San Bernardino County, was a later contributor from 1963 to 1980.

Contamination was detected in the 1980s and cleanup began in 1998. Discovery of the pollution forced closure of 20 water wells within a 6-mile radius of the site.

According to the final cleanup plan, the EPA considered two alternatives: 1) “No action,” a baseline offered at every Superfund site, and 2) “Adopt the implementation of the current interim groundwater remedies as described.”

The agency opted for No. 2.

–Ken Broder

Final Cleanup OK'd for San Bernardino Site (by Janet Zimmerman, Riverside Press Enterprise)

Newmark Groundwater Contamination (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

U.S. EPA Proposes Final Cleanup Plan (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

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