Environmental groups press Department of Public Health for chromium 6 limit with new lawsuit

Two environmental groups are renewing pressure on the state’s Department of Public Health to set an enforceable standard for hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical found in southern California’s drinking water.

After much debate, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal for hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, at two hundredths of a part per billion. State law requires the Department of Public Health to set an enforceable limit, taking into account the reliability of detection methods and the cost of cleanup efforts for the compound.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group are suing because the state has not yet set that limit, even though the law required the state to set the limit eight years ago, according to NRDC attorney Nick Morales. The Department of Public Health says it will have a draft limit ready by next summer, with a final rule on the books a year or two after that. “We think that the timeline estimated by the department is much too slow,” says Morales.

Chromium 6 is a known carcinogen, says NRDC scientist Sarah Janssen. She points out that it can also cause liver toxicity, respiratory damage, stomach lesions, and reproductive problems.

The Department of Public Health only began developing a limit after OEHHA released its work last year. Because the effort involves a cost-benefit analysis, the process is inherently more political, says the NRDC.

It also means tens of millions of dollars of cleanup costs. Plating shops and aerospace manufacturers in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys left chromium 6 behind in the last century. The federal Environmental Protection Agency now monitors the chemical in soil and groundwater.

Peter Kavounas, assistant general manager for water at Glendale Water and Power, says he wants the state to set a maximum contamination limit sooner rather than later. And he agrees with local politicians who say that a contamination limit could help press Glendale’s case to make the polluters pay for chromium 6 cleanup. But “filing a lawsuit will only confuse things, cost more money and not speed up the process at all,” he says.

Kavounas doesn't believe the state is dragging its feet. “Not at all,” he says. “I think the state's department of public health has acted as quickly as possible. And believe me, the state's funding limitations do impact the state's ability to perform.”

Glendale Water & Power has researched the cost of treating for chromium 6. Data gathered in Glendale will help the Department of Public Health develop its draft contamination limit.

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