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McClellan base polluted drinking water supply, districts say. They want $1.4B from feds

By SAM STANTON | The Sacramento Bee (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 9, 2017

In a sweeping legal fight that could affect drinking water supplies for thousands of Sacramento-area residents, two water districts near the old McClellan Air Force Base are suing the federal government for $1.4 billion to clean up the cancer-causing chemical hexavalent chromium from the area’s groundwater supplies.

The lawsuits, filed by the Sacramento Suburban Water District and the Rio Linda Elverta Community Water District, name the U.S. Air Force and 10 major firms that were involved in supplying chromium products and chemicals to the base for decades as workers there performed aircraft maintenance and other duties.

Officials with Sacramento Suburban, which serves 175,000 customers just east of the old base, and Rio Linda Elverta, which serves about 15,000 customers to the west of the base, say the water they currently are providing is safe.

But their lawsuits and claims say they will need $1.4 billion to clean up polluted wells, install treatment equipment and replace wells that have been decommissioned because of the presence of the chemical, which is known as chromium 6 or chrome 6 and was the subject of the film “Erin Brockovich.”

“Sacramento Suburban seeks to recover the substantial costs necessary to protect the public and restore its damaged drinking water supply… ,” the water district’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in Sacramento, says as part of its claim seeking more than $1.1 billion in damages.

Rio Linda Elverta’s claim seeks more than $289 million in damages, and both water districts are represented by San Francisco environmental attorney Victor Sher.

“Chrome 6 is a highly toxic compound and it shouldn’t be in the water,” Sher said Tuesday. “Water districts are constantly balancing risks against cost.

“They’re committed to delivering water that is as free as possible of contaminants, but doing so is expensive.”

The Air Force has consistently denied responsibility for chromium 6 being present in groundwater around the base, which operated from 1936 through 2001, when it was converted to a business park. Air Force officials denied the claim from Rio Linda Elverta in a May 9 letter, and the district sued in federal court in Sacramento on June 30.

Sacramento Suburban’s claim still is pending; the Air Force has until October to respond. But Sher already has filed suit against the government in federal court in Sacramento and has filed additional actions for the two utilities in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which is based in Washington, D.C., and hears claims against the government.

The Air Force had no immediate response Tuesday to the claims in the legal filings.

The two water districts also have sued 10 major firms that they say provided chemicals directly or indirectly to McClellan “when they knew or should have known that this harmful compound would reach groundwater, pollute drinking supplies, render drinking water unusable and unsafe, and threaten the public health and welfare...”

At issue is whether the chromium 6 in the groundwater came from Air Force operations at McClellan, which was designated as a federal Superfund site in 1987 after 326 contaminated sites were identified for cleanup.

The lawsuits claim activities at the base that contributed to the chromium 6 contamination go back decades and include the use of a chromium 6 storage tank in one building and an underground storage tank “that likely held” the chemical.

“Disposal sites identified at McClellan at least as far back as 1984 include burn and burial pits and trenches, landfills, and unlined ponds and ditches contaminated with plating wastes, solvents, acids, waste oils, paint thinners, strippers and sludges and other hazardous compounds,” the lawsuits state.

The water districts claim chromium 6 was released into the groundwater through a combination of leaking storage tanks and pipes, accidental spills, leaching from industrial waste and other methods, and that it spread as a plume out from the base into the two districts’ water supplies.

The suits say total chromium concentrations in the groundwater aquifer directly under the base have been measured as high as 840 parts per billion. California issued a drinking water standard for the chemical in 2014 that set a maximum concentration of 10 parts per billion, although a ruling in Sacramento Superior Court last week eliminated that limit, at least temporarily, in an unrelated case.

The claims against the Air Force also note that chromium 6 levels are highest at or near the base boundaries, and that they “decrease with distance from the base.”

Rob Roscoe, Sacramento Suburban’s general manager, and Mitch Dion, the interim general manager for Rio Linda Elverta, both emphasized that water being provided to customers is safe and being delivered from wells and surface water supplies that are not contaminated.

“Where we have had detections, we have turned those wells off,” Roscoe said, adding, “We’re protecting public safety and health; we err on the extreme side of caution with that.”

But the presence of the chemical – which the lawsuits say is linked to numerous maladies, including ulcers, skin irritation, anemia, cancer and tumors – already is costing the districts, both men said.

A 2016 study found chromium 6 levels higher than state standards in several wells in the Rio Linda Elverta district and prompted the district to estimate it would need $9 million in rate increases to pay for handling the discovery.

The Rio Linda Elverta’s estimate of $289 million in damages includes the fact that 600 private wells located inside its boundaries suffer from chromium 6 contamination and will need to switch their drinking water supply to the district’s, adding to construction and other costs.

Sacramento Suburban’s claim says it already “has removed from service seven wells, or about 10 percent of all of its wells, due to (chromium 6) contamination, including one well that was destroyed.”

The district already has incurred or plans to spend more than $3.6 million this year to handle chromium 6 planning and treatment, its claim says, and its total damages exceed $1.1 billion.

Sher, the attorney for the districts, said he still is investigating whether the contamination issue involves other water districts in the Sacramento area.

In addition to the Air Force, the water district lawsuits name 10 firms they say were associated with providing chemicals to the base: Elementis Chromium Inc., Occidental Chemical Corp., Honeywell Inc., BASF Corp., PPG Inc., E.I. Du Pont De Nemours and Co., Luxfer Holdings PLC, Sigma-Aldrich Corp. and Dow Chemical Co.

Of those, only three responded to requests for comment from The Sacramento Bee. PPG and Honeywell said they are reviewing the claims. Luxfer spokesman Dan Stracner said that Luxfer is “aware of the lawsuit and will defend the claim.”

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©2017 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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Groundwater treatment plant at the former McClellan Air Force Base.
ALEX GROTEWOHL/U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

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