In the News

Soquel Creek Carcinogen Could Prompt District to Make Major Changes
Chromium-6 occurs at levels much higher than state health goals recommend.

By Genevieve Bookwalter,
Capitola-Soquel Patch, 9:37am, 1/24/11

Comparatively high levels of a cancer-causing chemical found in Mid-County water could lead district officials to shutter wells, boost filtration efforts and rely heavily on a proposed desalination plant in an effort to reduce the amount of chromium-6 commonly found flowing from customers’ faucets.

“It’s quite clear it’s a carcinogen,” said Bruce Daniels, board member with Soquel Creek Water District. “I don’t like delivering carcinogens to our customers.”

The options arise as Soquel Creek Water District prepares for new state rules governing hexavalent chromium, also called chromium-6, a known carcinogen made famous for contaminating San Fernando Valley water and causing cancer in those who drank it in the movie Erin Brockovich.

Davenport dealt with its own chromium-6 scare earlier this year, as dust blown from its now-closed cement plant tested positive for the chemical.

While the Mid-County water supply contains chromium-6 levels allowed by the state, an expected change in California rules soon could put Soquel Creek Water District—along with a third of California’s other water districts—out of compliance, said Laura Brown, the district's general manager. The details of those changes, like new limit levels and when they will take effect, have not been set.

But with a new state public health goal thousands of times lower than the amount of chromium-6 allowed now, “it is likely that we will have wells that do not meet the standard,” Brown said.

The state's public health goal is to keep chromium-6 levels safe enough for residents to drink two liters of water each day until age 70 without developing cancer from the chemical.

District board members already are talking about how to reduce chromium-6 levels in water delivered to those living between Rio del Mar in Aptos and La Selva Beach, about a third of the district’s 50,000 customers.

Those water hookups are served by six wells pumped from the Aromas Red Sands Aquifer, which also provides water to Pajaro Valley Water District.

Proposed drinking water fixes include the installation of a new water filtration system, shuttering of contaminated wells and furthering dependence on a desalination plant that the district is planning with Santa Cruz Water Department, said Brown and members of the district’s board of directors. How much those fixes might cost has not been determined.

“If the Aromas aquifer is off limits, said district director Daniel Kriege, “we’ll be the first to expand that desal issue and run it 12 months a year.”

As proposed, the desalination plant is to serve Santa Cruz customers during drought months and help Soquel Creek recharge its depleted underground wells at other times. The government-required environmental review for the plant is under way.

Unlike environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who had the movie made about her work, Soquel Creek cannot point fingers at someone else to clean up its chromium-6. While it was the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. that leaked the carcinogen into the water supply in Brokovich's southern California town of Hinkley, chromium-6 occurs naturally Soquel Creek’s Aromas Aquifer, Brown said.

As a result, one Soquel Creek well pumps water with a chromium-6 level of 39 parts per billion—well under the 50 ppb of total chromium allowed by the state, but thousands of times higher than California’s proposed health goal of .02 ppb, Brown said. That goal was set in December.

The district blends chromium-6-laced water with other supplies, which brings the level of chromium-6 down to 14 ppb before it reaches customers, Brown said. Still, that likely will not be low enough for the expected state standards.

This month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered additional chromium-6 testing in drinking water nationwide as it researches the issue.

Alex Formuzis, spokesman for Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., which completed a study on the prevalence and problems with chromium-6 in the U.S. late last year, said Soquel Creek customers shouldn’t switch to bottled water in a panic, because bottled water has not been tested for chromium-6.

Instead, “I would encourage folks to invest in a reverse-osmosis filtration system that would capture most contaminants—including this carcinogen—from their tap water,” Formuzis said.

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