Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Superfund site of the Week: (Almost a fifth of) The San Gabriel Valley

(Photo by Patricia Mateos Ballestero for The Toxies via Physicians for Social Responsibility.)


In commemoration of news that the Environmental Protection Agency got $4.4 million and change to help pay for cleanup costs at this site, Pacific Swell's Superfund site of the week is the San Gabriel Valley. (It'll be next week's too, in fact.)

We reported the EPA announcement of two consent decrees - civil settlements in which companies that in the past operated on land and may have polluted it agree to give the government money to clean it up to resolve their liability. To understand why the EPA went after those companies, it's helpful to take the Wayback Machine to 1979, where, though it was the year of Blondie's "The Tide is High," other important things happened.

That's when evidence of contamination first showed up in a San Gabriel Valley water well. It was connected to a massive aquifer in the valley - think water reservoir, but underground. But much as you can't really dust for vomit (R.I.P, Stumpy Joe), tracing the source of chemicals in a massive reservoir underground ain't easy.

The crazy mess in the San Gabriel Valley is such a tangled web of contamination it's been broken up into 4 parts. This site is an amazing one; its history is as Californian as rolling through stop signs. The land was used for farms, for a boom of houses in the fifties, and for aerospace companies. It's an underground gumbo: like trying to figure out who peed in the pool without blue dye.  

By 1984, the federal government declared the San Gabriel Valley Superfundable because now 30 square miles are contaminated with volatile organic compounds, which themselves break down into components that cause cancer. That's almost a fifth of the valley itself!

From the beginning, this Superfund site in San Gabriel Valley was mega. 'Cause as authorities started to try to figure out how to clean it up, they realized two things: 

  1. The contaminated water was moving through the underground reservoir. That's what they're talking about when you hear about a plume; the aquifer is massive, and stretches over miles of land. 
  2. It was more contaminated than they thought. TCE - trichloroethylene - was used to degrease aerospace and defense industry equipment. PCE - tetrachloroethylene - another carcinogen. Perchlorate - yuck. For a while, the more they looked, the more they found. And they had hundreds of companies potentially on the hook for it.

Eight years ago the EPA scored a major breakthrough: 250 million dollars from several companies. That money's already making water clean at a facility in Whittier Narrows, stripping and filtering TCE out of what's pumped from the ground. EPA has been periodically settling claims with hundreds of potentially responsible parties, including with NorthropGrumman two years ago. The company paid 21 million dollars toward cleanup in Area 3.

The total price tag for the San Gabriel Valley regional cleanup is now almost half a billion dollars. This most recent settlement of a little over four million is, basically, a drop in the bucket.


Next week: The "polluter pays" principle, and how that has worked in the San Gabriel Valley.


(The Toxies is a satirical awards ceremony highlighting “bad actor chemicals.” More about it at their website.)


(You can always click the "Superfund Site of the Week" tag for all of the past stories.)