By Andrew Silva, Daily Bulletin Writer
The cleanup of contaminated groundwater in Rialto, Colton and Fontana has been moving too slowly, critics contended during a state Senate hearing Monday.
However, they stopped short of demanding that three members of the board overseeing the issue lose their seats.
"This is dragging on 10 years," local activist Penny Newman told the Senate Rules Committee. "The cost is being passed by the city of Rialto to its ratepayers."
Newman is executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, which has been involved in environmental issues in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
The issue landed in front of the committee after Sen. Nell Soto, D-Pomona, demanded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's three appointees to the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board appear in person because she is frustrated with how the board had addressed the issue. The appointments are usually routine and don't require hearings.
Perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient also used in flares, fireworks and other products, has seeped into the soil from north Rialto, where defense related businesses and fireworks companies have operated for more than five decades.
The chemical has contaminated 22 wells serving Rialto, Colton and Fontana, though at least nine of them now have treatment equipment in place that scrubs the perchlorate from the water.
Carole Beswick, a former mayor of Redlands and now chairwoman of the Santa Ana board, defended the board's actions as it has sought a way to clean up the mess.
Perchlorate is a top priority of the board, which has been conducting a long-running investigation to determine the extent of the problem and who is responsible, she said.
The board issued a cleanup and abatement order against B.F. Goodrich Corp. in 2002 but rescinded the order after the company agreed to pay $4 million to begin treating contaminated water.
That deal expires in October and the board could reissue the order at that time.
Sen. Gibert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, asked why the board rescinded the order instead of continuing to pursue Goodrich.
Beswick argued Goodrich and the other suspected polluter, a corporate relative of Black and Decker, were aggressively fighting the orders, and it was almost certain to wind up in court.
The board was interested in protecting the water as quickly as possible, and the deal allowed the cities to start installing wellhead treatments right away, she said.
"I'm very disturbed by this," Cedillo said. "You can't buy yourself out of a deal."
Beswick countered that it seemed the best course of action at the time to get water cleaned quickly.
Rialto is suing about 40 potentially responsible parties to recover the cost of treating and replacing water and attorneys working with Rialto said the matter is very complex and is made even more difficult because the suspected polluters are fighting so hard.
Activists said they met with Beswick last week and received assurances she is committed to the cleanup and forcing the polluters to pay.
"We will give this board another chance," said Sujatha Jahagirdar, of Environment California.
The board is already three members short, and without the current board members, the body wouldn't have a quorum.
The other appointees are Mary Cramer, of Anaheim, and Deborah Neev, of Laguna Beach.
At the end of the hearing the rules committee voted unanimously to recommend confirmation by the senate.