Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Superfund site of the week: Polluters paying in the San Gabriel Valley

This week we continue looking at the Superfund site that is the San Gabriel valley, or a fifth of it, anyway. 

(Read last week's intro to this Superfund site.)

The polluter pays principle is a big part of Superfund law and it's important at this site. It's pretty straightforward: You make a big huge toxic, hazardous, cancerous mess? You're on the hook for putting everything back as close to the way it was as possible. 

The San Gabriel Valley is more or less in favor of cleaning up the Superfund site there lake this. It wasn't always that way; federal and local governments once were divided about taking money out of the pockets of corporate citizens of the valley. Local public officials criticized the federal government's interest in shaking the polluter-money tree. In the mid-1990's, Democratic congressman Esteban Torres wrote, "After 10 years of confusion, power struggles and bureaucratic inaction, the community in the San Gabriel Valley is no longer convinced that Superfund, under the direction of the EPA, is going to solve their problem."

Now we're a long way from the budget surplus days of two decades ago. (Probably why polluter paying seems like a better idea these days.) I hear a lot more approval for going after polluters, even those connected to military contracting, even in this national-security conscious post-9/11 world.

Still - as I mentioned last week, figuring out who contaminated a groundwater aquifer is a little like dusting for vomit in This is Spinal Tap. Harder: EPA started with a list of hundreds of companies that were potentially responsible parties. The polluters. Polluters pay. How to determine their share? 

The place EPA's done the most to figure that out in the San Gabriel Valley is the largest subsite: Baldwin Park. Aerojet General Corporation, Azusa Land Reclamation Co. Inc., Fairchild Holding Corp., Hartwell Corp., Huffy Corporation, Oil & Solvent Process Co., Reichold, Inc., and Wynn Oil Co got found liable to pay a total of 250 million dollars towards cleanup, which started about 9 years ago. Water pumping takes about 22,000 gallons per minute of contaminated groundwater out of the aquifer and treat it to remove contaminants. Now, four Baldwin Park treatment plants have cleaned 50 billion gallons of water so far, removing 40,000 pounds of contamination. 

Even where polluter pays is trumpeted as a success story, some of those companies deemed responsible for cleanup are bankrupt; they never forked over their share. Smaller fish pay what they call "cashout settlements," while bigger polluters pay ongoing oversight costs. But as more time passes, companies go out of business. In case it wasn't obvious, the system has some swiss-cheese sized holes. 

Next week: Superfund's value to monitoring groundwater in the San Gabriel Valley.  

(Image via Environmental Protection Agency - 2004 report mapping approximate extent of VOC contamination. The long drip shape on the right hand side is now where the Baldwin Park Operable Unit is.)