RIALTO - City Attorney Bob Owen was the quarterback of the city's high-profile battle to pursue the parties charged with contaminating the city's drinking water.

But last week, the City Council fired him. What's not clear is if they want to send his cleanup strategy out the door with him.

The water supply is contaminated with perchlorate, an ingredient in explosives, and the cleaning solvent trichloroethylene. Although an audit the council requested on the cost of the city's efforts has not yet been made public, the best estimate is that $20 million has been spent trying to hold dozens of suspected polluters responsible.

Only $3 million has been spent on treatment.

"I think we have to take a look at the strategy, what it's going to cost," Councilman Joe Baca Jr. said when asked if he wants to nix the specialized lawyers Owen brought in.

Baca, Mayor Grace Vargas and Councilman Ed Scott, a member of the council's perchlorate subcommittee, voted to give Owen 30 days' notice. Owen's contract states the city will have to pay $500,000 to end his contract early. Councilwoman Deborah Robertson and Councilwoman Winnie Hanson, the other member of the subcommittee, wanted to keep him.

"I'm hoping that this is not detrimental to our court case," Hanson said. A massive federal lawsuit to determine responsibility for the contamination is set to begin this year.

As costs have mounted and state regulators have failed to initiate

a widespread cleanup, the City Council reversed a long-held view and invited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to town to declare part of the source of the contamination a Superfund site.

The council decided to pursue the suspected polluters in court long ago, Robertson said.

"We did it with the understanding that we would pursue litigation and seek to recover as much as we can," she said.

She said she has noticed gradual changes in strategy as of late. The city has tried to reach settlements with the suspected polluters and has sought state and federal money.

"These exit strategies don't appear to do anything to return anything to the ratepayers," she said.

The ratepayers are the customers of Rialto's water department, which serves about half the city. The customers have funded the bulk of the city's efforts through a surcharge on their water bills.

Baca said residents should not pay a surcharge that funds lawyers and experts.

"It should go to treatment," he said.

Scott said the city can't eliminate the surcharge while the litigation continues.

But he said any money from a settlement or court order should reimburse ratepayers before going to the city.

He said he hopes the litigation can end soon.

"In fact, the olive branch is out there to settle the lawsuit," he said.

He also said the lawyers working on the case remain in place.

"Currently, we're steadfast on the existing strategy," said Scott. "There's been no change by the council on the lawsuit. That's not to say there won't be at some point."


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