My Erin Brockovich Nightmare

by Michael J. McGuire

I have this recurring nightmare.  The California Department of Public Health is criticized for taking too long to set a maximum contaminant level for hexavalent chromium.  Frustrated environmental groups sue CDPH.  The California Legislature calls a public hearing on a bill that sets an MCL for Cr6 at the public health goal of 20 parts per trillion. Erin Brockovich shows up at the hearing and convinces the Legislature to pass the bill by acclamation.

After the bill is signed by Governor Woody Harrelson, a chemist invents an analytical method to analyze Cr6 at 1 part per trillion and monitoring shows that all California water utilities exceed the MCL.  All water providers (including bottled water companies) install expensive treatment to achieve the MCL and promptly declare bankruptcy.  A private company from Bashkortostan (look it up) buys all of the public and private water agencies for kopecks on the dollar and everyone in California starts paying their water bills in rubles.

The Republican controlled U.S. Congress sees this as an opportunity to privatize the nation’s public water supplies and passes a similar bill which President Paul Ryan signs into law.  (I told you this was a nightmare.)  Russian becomes a required language for all certified treatment plant operators.

It doesn’t make sense, right?  Well, it was only a bad dream.  Hmm, maybe not.  Ok, paying our water bills in rubles won’t happen, but what about the rest?  Yesterday, it was reported that the NRDC and the Environmental Working Group filed suit against the CDPH for not setting an MCL fast enough for that “Brockovich chemical.”  On February 23, 2012, AB 2051 was introduced to force CDPH to set a Cr6 MCL by a date certain.  There was some speculation that the bill would be amended to require the MCL be set at the PHG of 20 parts per trillion.  Uh Oh.  Does anyone see the Russians roaming around

Ah, this brings back memories from early 2001 when six bills were introduced in the California legislature to control Cr6—as reported by an on-the-ball newsletter.  But I digress.

To paraphrase a saying, the journey toward an MCL begins with a single step.  Some people think that we were headed for an insanely low MCL when the Cr6 problem was discovered in Hinkley, California and Erin Brockovich and friends got a $333 million settlement in 1996 from Pacific Gas and Electric.  For me the first step took place in September 2000 when I got a call from Glendale (California) Water and Power.  They were switching from surface water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to groundwater that the City was treating to remove organic chemicals.  Unfortunately, another contaminant was hitchhiking along—yep, Cr6.  The levels of Cr6 that would have been served to customers were far below the 50 ppb MCL for total chromium but the Cr6 concentrations would have been higher than those in the MWDSC water.  In a highly unusual move, the Glendale City Council established a local guideline for Cr6 of about 5 to 6 ppb, or about 10 times lower than the MCL.  I could feel the Cr6 MCL crumbling.

Early in 2000, the film, Erin Brockovich was released.  It received a lot of media attention because of the story and the personality of the main character.  Everyone was talking about hexavalent chromium for the rest of 2000.  On March 25, 2001, Julia Roberts won Best Actress for her portrayal of Brockovich.  Well, now we were done.  Throughout late 2000 and early 2001, there was a flood of media coverage and calls for tougher Cr6 regulations.  A lot of city council meetings turned into a red-carpet walk for the star of my nightmare.

For a month, I followed Ms. Brockovich around the San Fernando Valley testifying before city councils in Burbank, San Fernando, Glendale, etc.  She would arrive dressed to the nines and sweep into the council chambers with TV cameras following her every move to castigate Cr6 and tell the assembled press that everyone was being poisoned.  While she sailed out of the chambers, I would shuffle in with my tattered briefcase and scuffed shoes and try to explain the science, engineering and policy issues of Cr6 in drinking water.  Who do you think made the bigger impression?  Hey, where did all of the cameras go?

In early 2001, removing Cr6 to low levels was problematic because there were no studies showing how Cr6 could be reduced to single-digit-ppb levels.  The City of Glendale took on the challenge and started funding about a dozen research investigations.  They were successful in getting funding from the federal government, State of California, AWWA Research Foundation (now called the Water Research Foundation) and other cities in the San Fernando Valley.  The work was personally satisfying and highly successful in identifying two technologies that could reduce Cr6 levels below 5 ppb.  Based on these technologies, Glendale proceeded to build two demonstration-scale treatment plants that are still operating today.

On August 29, 2011 the California EPA set a Public Health Goal for hexavalent chromium of 20 parts per trillion based on a conservative risk assessment methodology.  The MCL is crumbling, crumbling, crumbl…

But, wait.  If the MCL is set at 20 parts per trillion, how can these technologies remove Cr6 to that level (250 times lower that the 5 ppb Glendale treatment goal or 2500 times lower than the current California MCL).  I feel myself slipping into the nightmare again.  The fact is that there is no treatment process that anyone has published in a peer-reviewed journal (or anywhere else I am aware of) that could achieve an MCL of 20 ppt

Now that I am fully awake, I can see the problems with some perspective.  It was crazy to set a federal MCL for total chromium in 1975 when, even then, we knew that Cr6 was the toxic form of the metal.  An MCL for Cr6 in drinking water that is safe and achievable must be established at the federal level to avoid a hopscotch rule making process across the U.S.  In California, everyone needs to calm down, take a breath and let the CDPH follow their process to set an MCL that meets the same tests:  safe and achievable.  By the time the NRDC/EWG case gets heard, the MCL will most likely be set anyway

Anyone who thinks that an MCL of 20 parts per trillion should be set, needs to look at the fact that there is no treatment technique to achieve such a level.  Well, maybe I am not being fair.  We could cover the landscape of California with weak-base anion exchange resin contactors and maybe get that low.  Nobody could afford it.  No studies have been done, but in my opinion the cost of a 20 ppt MCL would be in the tens of billions of dollars.

Perhaps, instead, we should look at the methodology used by the California EPA to set Public Health Goals.  What are PHGs and where did they come from?  Ah, that is the subject of another nightmare.

About safedrinkingwaterdotcom

McGuire is an environmental engineer and writer. He has worked in the drinking water community for over 40 yrs
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3 Responses to My Erin Brockovich Nightmare

  1. Michael,
    Nice article. I like the way you weaved a lot of basic technical information into this nightmare, and it IS a nightmare that’s close enough to the truth to make anyone sweat…. Well done!

  2. Thanks Eileen. Throughout my career, I have tried to find ways to explain ridiculously technical material to the public so that they can understand it and develop an opinion during policy discussions. We need public participation to do a better job in the water community. I appreciate your feedback.

  3. Pingback: Chromium from Disney

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