Contaminated water can't stop California sprawl

Rocket fuel ingredient and other pollutants now commonplace in groundwater

  • Workers install a perchlorate treatment system on the well slated to provide drinking water to the proposed West Creek development

    Valencia Water Co.

For more than 50 years, Newhall Land and Farming Co., once a mighty ranching outfit, has been turning its northern Los Angeles County lands into subdivsions. Recently, however, the developer has faced increasing opposition from local environmentalists and conservation groups who claim Newhall is pushing sprawl — and relying on tainted drinking water.

The Sierra Club, Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Santa Clara Organization for Planning the Environment have all tried to halt Newhall’s latest project, a 2,500-home development north of Los Angeles called West Creek. Environmentalists have expressed concern about the project’s impacts on a rare frog and on the Santa Clara River, and have challenged Newhall’s assertions about the reliability of imported water supplies. Their efforts have slowed, but not stopped, the giant developer.

Then, this April, the fight took a new turn. A routine test of a well slated to supply drinking water to West Creek found high levels of perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient that has been linked to thyroid problems in adults and developmental disabilities in fetuses.

Lynne Plambeck, an area activist who has fought Newhall for years, argues that the perchlorate may spread to more wells, endangering current and future residents. "I think that for the safety of the public, remediation facilities (must) be online before they approve this growth," she says.

But Newhall Vice President Marlee Lauffer says that environmentalists inflated the perchlorate danger in a last-ditch attempt to stop West Creek. And on July 26, with a perchlorate treatment plan in hand and proof of additional water supplies, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved Newhall’s final environmental report by a vote of 3 to 1. Lauffer expects that model West Creek homes, priced from the "mid-threes through the mid-eights," will be available for viewing by next fall.

The problem with perchlorate

West Creek’s homes are part of an ever-growing planned community based around Newhall’s Valencia housing development, begun in the 1960s. While Valencia was sprouting, the nearby Whittaker-Bermite factory was producing perchlorate for Sidewinder missiles and military flares. The factory closed in 1987, but the perchlorate in the site’s soil eventually leached into the aquifers on which area water suppliers rely.

Between 1997 and 2002, five area wells were capped after they were found with perchlorate levels ranging from 5.9 parts per billion to more than 40 parts per billion. There are no enforceable federal standards for perchlorate, but California’s Department of Health requires that the public be notified when levels in a water supply reach six parts per billion. At 18 parts per billion, a water source must be shut down.

The well where perchlorate was discovered in April is contaminated at about 10 parts per billion. Valencia Water Co., a subsidiary of Newhall Land, capped the West Creek well and made its status public. But the well will soon be online again.

In 2000, five area water companies, including Valencia, sued Whittaker, several investors who want to redevelop the site, and their respective insurers. They sought at least $60 million, the cost of cleaning up perchlorate in the ground and water beneath the site. A judge ruled in 2003 that Whittaker and its insurers are liable for the contamination, and Whittaker has since agreed to a preliminary settlement of $500,000 to cover water-treatment equipment at the West Creek well.

But payments for the ongoing water treatment costs at the well — some $9,500 a month — and for cleaning up other wells if they become contaminated in the future, are still being hammered out, according to Robert DiPrimio, president of Valencia Water Co.

Treating wells, not sources

The Army Corps of Engineers has begun soil decontamination at the Whittaker site. But it has yet to start work on the plume leaking into the groundwater, and complete perchlorate removal will likely take 30 years of nonstop pumping, says Larry Sievers, the Corps’ manager for the project.

Full cleanup hinges on getting more settlement money. Fred Fudacz, a lawyer for the water companies, says, "We’ll get the money one way or another." But if Whittaker and the insurance companies fail to pay, cleanup costs could fall on Valencia Water’s shoulders, forcing the company to raise local water rates, warns company president DiPrimio.

In the meantime, DiPrimio says the West Creek well, which is capable of producing roughly 60 percent of the planned development’s needs, will continue to be one of many water sources Valencia Water Co. relies on. West Creek, like Valencia’s current customers, will get a mix of well water and water from Castaic Lake Water Agency.

Critics such as Plambeck, however, say that relying on imported water and wellhead water treatment is just a Band-Aid to speed through West Creek and other developments. Public safety, she says, is being disregarded by a water company owned by a developer that’s eager to see its homes selling in an all-time high housing market. "Instead of cleaning at the source," she says, "we’re continuing to approve development after development."

DiPrimio says he’d like nothing more than to see the plume cleaned up, but in the meantime, wellhead treatment may become the order of the day. Perchlorate has been found in 563 wells across California.

"Groundwater contamination is becoming more and more prevalent," he says. "Eventually, we’ll be treating all our groundwater."

The author is a former HCN intern.

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