Just two miles from Cal State Fullerton, dangerous chemicals have leaked from the soil into the groundwater that supplies up to 75 percent of the drinking water for 2.5 million people in 22 Orange County cities, including Fullerton and the CSUF campus, according to the Orange County Water District.
The plume of pollution stretches from S. State College Boulevard and W. Commonwealth Avenue to Brookhurst Street and south of CA-91 into Anaheim.
The pollution is so severe that the state recently asked the United States Environmental Protection Agency to step in, and it did. After the EPA’s Administrator Scott Pruitt visited Orange County, the polluted 5-square-mile area was added to a list of 21 sites around the nation that need immediate cleanup.
Known as the Orange County North Basin, the area could be listed as a Superfund cleanup site soon. Superfund is a federal program that allows the EPA to clean up pollution and force polluters to pay for the cleanup.
The public should not be alarmed by the pollution, according to city and county officials.
“Just because the EPA is here, doesn’t mean our water quality is bad. We just want to protect it before it gets bad,” said Hye Jin Lee, water system manager and assistant city engineer for Fullerton. “City of Fullerton will check the water quality of the wells monthly,” Lee said.
The Orange County North Basin plume contains three volatile organic compounds often used for degreasing operations. The compounds in the groundwater led to the shutdown of five drinking water wells in Fullerton and Anaheim, according to a 2018 EPA study of the area. Volatile compound levels in the plume have exceeded 200 times the maximum contamination level allowed in drinking water.
The hazardous chemicals, 1,1-DCE; TCE; and PCE, are known carcinogens, said Jeffrey Knott, professor of geological sciences at CSUF.
“This is a significant amount, it has to be from some sort of industrial facilities, this isn’t from some guy in his backyard dumping his oil change from last month,” Knott said.
TCE has been found in drinking water wells in Fullerton as recently as April, but in amounts that are below the maximum contamination levels set by the EPA, according to a document from the City of Fullerton.
Orange County’s water is “very clean,” said William Hunt, director of special projects for the Orange County Water District. “When people buy bottled water, I’m amazed; it’s nowhere as good as the water here.”
The county tests drinking water wells annually, but increases that to quarterly if it detects volatile compounds.
At least 46 active drinking water wells in the area are in danger because the contaminated plume is on the move, according to the EPA.
“Groundwater movement is generally very slow. However, the contamination is believed to have existed for many decades in some places, which has given the contaminants time to spread,” said Nahal Mogharabi in an email. Mogharabi is an EPA’s Southern California spokeswoman.
The Orange County Water District and the EPA have linked the use of volatile organic compounds to several companies that operated or continue to operate on properties in the area. A few date back to the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Some made military and aircraft parts, others did chromium plating and electroplating, one was making musical instruments. They all were using the volatile compounds.
The EPA has named eight companies that may be contributing to the plume. The companies are:
- Arnold Engineering/Universal Molding – 1551 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton
- Autonetics/Raytheon – 310 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton
- CBS Fender – 500 S. Raymond Ave., Fullerton
- Fullerton Manufacturing – 311 S. Highland Ave., Fullerton
- Khyber Foods – 1818 E. Rosslynn Ave., Fullerton
- Northrop Y-19 – 1401 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton
- Orange County Metal Processing – 1711 E. Kimberly Ave., Fullerton
- Vista Paint – 2020 E. Orangethorpe Ave, Fullerton
In 2004, the water district filed a lawsuit against potentially responsible corporations in order to get money for a large-scale cleanup.
“We sued 18 companies. Nine of them have settled,” Hunt said.
The water district has received about $22 million in settlements since first filing suit, according to the water district’s North Basin fact sheet.
The control and cleanup of the contamination will likely take decades and cost more than $100 million, according to the water district.
Working with the EPA and listing the Orange County North Basin as a Superfund site has benefits.
“Once the site is listed the EPA has special powers, legal powers. For instance, if it’s a listed site they could use federal money to do the work and then collect it from polluters,” Hunt said.
The EPA has invited the public to comment on the possible listing of the Orange County North Basin for the Superfund site. The comment period ends May 18, 2018. To comment go to www.regulations.gov.
Wendy Chavez contributed to this report.