Solvent Plume From Airport Threatening Chino Water Basin

The Chino Water Basin is being threatened by a spreading plume of solvent contamination in the water table, documents obtained by the Sentinel reveal. The pollution lies beneath what is otherwise prime real estate, consisting of undeveloped or former agricultural land east of Los Serranos and northwest of Prado Dam in the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County.
State and local officials have recognized at least since 1989 that perchloroethylene and trichloroethene have been emanating into the groundwater supply from Chino Airport.
Chino Airport is a county-owned and operated facility that covers an area of 1,097 acres which contains three asphalt-paved runways, several hangars, a few suites of executive offices and classrooms and the Planes of Fame and the Yanks Air museums, where aircraft restoration and preservation conducted by several different companies takes place. Previously, during World War II, flight training was carried out at the airport and after the war, hundreds of former combat aircraft were flown into Chino for disposal. Many of the planes were dismantled and melted into aluminum ingots by means of portable smelters which were installed at the facility.
On October 31, 1990, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a clean-up and abatement order to the county of San Bernardino for suspected contamination of groundwater underneath the Chino Airport. The groundwater is believed to have been contaminated due to past usage of perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethene (TCE). In seeking to comply with that order, the county has conducted activities at the airport to identify all potential sources of contamination; characterize identified source areas; remediate discovered soil contamination; characterize ground water contamination; monitor ground water contamination; and mitigate identified groundwater contamination within the confines of the airport located at 7000 Merrill Avenue in Chino. One of those activities was the sinking of 33 monitoring wells.
Perchloroethylene, which is also known as tetrachloroethylene, is a man-made chemical used primarily in dry cleaning, adhesives, metal degreasing and manufacturing. A non-flammable and colorless liquid at room temperature, it evaporates rapidly into the air. Perchloroethylene is classified as carcinogenic to humans by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trichloroethene is a chemical compound, also known as trichloroethylene,  a chlorinated hydrocarbon commonly used as an industrial solvent. It is a clear non-flammable liquid. Research from cancer bioassays performed by the National Cancer Institute showed that exposure to trichloroethylene is carcinogenic in animals, producing liver cancer in mice, and kidney cancer in rats. There are indications as well that it could elevate the incidence of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in populations exposed to it in drinking water.
The National Toxicology Program’s 11th Report on Carcinogens categorizes trichloroethylene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.
The presence of PCE and TCE in the Chino Basin’s water table loomed into focus recently because of action by the county in increasing the contract for a company involved in the surveying of the extent of the contamination.
According to a memo obtained by the Sentinel titled “Chino Airport Groundwater Assessment Recommendations” dated December 13, 2011 from Mike Williams, the county’s director of airports, and Carl Alban, the county director of architecture and engineering, to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, a more than five-year effort by a company, Pasadena-based Tetra Tech, Inc., to determine the extent of the groundwater contamination in Chino has not yet achieved a definitive determination. “On October 17, 2006,” Williams and Alban told the board, “the board of supervisors approved a contract with Tetra Tech, Inc. to conduct a groundwater assessment of the water table at the Chino Airport and investigate possible sources of contamination. On September 11, 2007, the board approved amendment No. 1 to extend the assessment services an additional 24 months for preparing bid documents, providing inspection and testing services, and performing quarterly sampling/reports. On September 22, 2009, the board approved amendment No. 2 to extend the assessment services an additional 12 months to continue the same efforts. Amendment No. 3 was approved by the board on February 15, 2011, extending the assessment services an additional 12 months to continue the same efforts. Amendment No. 3 also included an initial phase of historical site analysis to assist in determining potential responsible parties. Due to the intensive level of coordination and communication with outside agencies, amendment No. 3 was not adequate to provide a full 12 months of inspection and testing services and quarterly sampling/reports, and therefore amendment No. 4 is required at this time. Contract amendment No. 4 is recommended in order to maintain continuity of the ongoing research and investigation, negotiations with outside agencies, and coordination with risk management.”
The reference to risk management is to that division of the county which assesses areas of potential liability and provides decision makers with options to redress the circumstances and/or minimize liability. Accordingly, the document indicates the potentiality that landowners and residents whose property and/or health could be negatively impacted by the contamination may be in a position to take legal action against the county.
An unidentified employee at Tetra Tech referred questions from the Sentinel to the county department of airports.
Gerald Greene, the senior environmental engineer with the Chino Basin Watermaster, in fielding a series of questions submitted about the extent of the groundwater contamination in the area, told the Sentinel “The questions you asked could lead into litigation-related issues. We have been directed to refer your phone call to our legal counsel, Michael Fife.”
Fife is an attorney with the Santa Barbara-based law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which specializes in environmental and real estate issues. Fife said he could not readily provide much general or technical information beyond acknowledging that the watermaster is aware of the situation involving the plume of TCE and PCE.
“Those are technical questions and I have to go to our technical people to consult for answers as to what the extent of the contamination is and how that changes our water quality. Unfortunately, we just lost our general manager and I can’t speak for the board and make that kind of evaluative statement. I can tell you the remediation is the responsibility of the county, and the Chino Basin Watermaster has been in a water monitoring role. Where the plume is and what the terms of the remediation are is not something the watermaster has been involved in. We have not been involved in the legal action involving the county and whoever was at the airport. The watermaster’s role is we just monitor the basin.”
Kurt Berchtold, an executive officer with the California Water Quality Control Board, this week told the Sentinel, “There clearly is a plume of TCE migrating south-southwest from the airport property. The highest level of TCE detected is 420 parts per billion.”
The allowable California safe drinking water standard is 5.0 parts of TCE per billion, such that some of the water in the basin is testing at a level that is 84 times higher than is considered safe.
Berchtold said, “We’ve not identified the precise source of contamination, but it is clear from the distribution of TCE in the water that it comes from historic sources along the western end of the airport property. It likely dates back some time, since TCE was phased out of use in the 70s. TCE and PCE have similar uses. They are basically degreasing solvents.  PCE replaced TCE after TCE was phased out. Although PCE has been detected, the TCE is at much higher concentrations in the plume.”
Berchtold said the contamination is spreading. “From the work the county has done, we know it has migrated into a substantial area,” he said. “There are 28 permanent wells in the area and other additional sample ground water collection efforts where they drive a probe and collect water from the water table at depth. There are multiple points where they have encountered readings of over 100 parts per billion. There are definitely areas of elevated concentration.”
At present, Berchtold said, the plume has migrated “to a point about 7,500 feet from the airport, just south of Bickmore Avenue.”
Monitoring of the problem has advanced to a considerable degree, Berchtold said, indicating that the remediation of the problem has not yet begun in earnest, though he said an existing filtering plant aimed at dealing with the residue from agricultural use of the property currently offers some limited treatment of captured water.
Berchtold said, “The county is subject to a cleanup and abatement order we have issued. They are required to investigate and clean up. They have done a substantial amount of investigation and they will need to install additional wells. They have not submitted a cleanup plan yet. However, some of the plume is being captured by a desalter project that has wells within the area of the plume.”
The desalter plant is aimed at filtering nitrates and salts in the water table that have accumulated in the aquifer as a consequence of the significant number of dairies in the area.
“The nature of this groundwater basin is the water flows southerly and enters ultimately the Santa Ana River,” Berchtold said. “The desalter plant was built to capture the water before it reaches the river and remove the high concentration of salt and nitrate so it does not enter the river. The plant also pulls in TCE so the TCE is not making it into the river, either.”
Nevertheless, the desalter plant is inadequate to the task of effectuating the whole cleanup, Berchthold said.
“The desalter plant does not capture all of the plume from the airport,” he said. “After the county completes sinking additional wells and determining the full extent of the contamination, they will have to come up with a proposal to deal with the part of the plume not dealt with by the desalter wells. The goal is to restore that part of the basin so it could again be used for supplying drinking water. As it is, because of the presence of salts and nitrates. the water there is not usable for the drinking water supply anyway, but the overall goal is to remove all of the contaminants from the water table, the salts, the nitrates and the TCE.”
Berchthold acknowledged that the problem has been recognized as existing for some time and that the remediation would proceed at a glacial pace, taking a generation or more to complete.
“We have been working well with the county for several years now,” he said. “We expect the county will in the future submit a cleanup plan for the rest of the plume. It is difficult to predict how long that will take to complete. Groundwater moves very slowly. It often takes tens of years to correct something like this. It is not something that will happen quickly. With the desalter project and what county does to deal with the plume, that combination will ensure the water in the basin is protected.”
While it was entities that were located on the airport before the county took on ownership there that most likely created the problem, the county’s current ownership of the airport makes it responsible for abating the problem there, Berchtold said.
“The county as the current property owner would have liability,” he said. “Whatever liability other parties that operated there might also have would depend on a variety of factors. If those other parties could be shown to have actively discharged the TCE, the county would have the option of suing them to recover the cost it is bearing in completing the cleanup.  It is often difficult to go back many years and find that evidence, though.”
Among the companies and entities operating at Chino Airport were the U.S. Military, the Aeromotive Corporation and the Cal-Aero Flight School, founded by Major Corliss Champion Moseley, a veteran World War I pilot who began his aviation career with the Army Signal Corp in 1917 and became involved with various aspects of commercial aviation after leaving the service. Moseley operated a flight and aeronautics mechanics school at Chino Airport in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
The contamination represents a far more serious threat to the water supply than it does to the usability of the real estate around the base, Berchtold opined.
“The contamination doesn’t really directly interfere with the property for other uses,” he said. “The presence of TCE and PCE at some depth below the property could complicate redevelopment if lenders see some liability for landowners that overlie a plume, but that can be worked out if the responsible party identified has accepted liability for correcting the problem.”
The board of supervisors this week approved Williams’ and Albans’ recommendation with regard to amendment No. 4 to the contract with Tetra Tech, increasing by $231,100 the total contract amount from $733,000 to $964,100 and extending the contract through December 2012 for professional services related to the groundwater assessment at Chino Airport.
The original, first, second and third amendments of the contract were budgeted and encumbered in prior years. Amendment No. 4 is fully funded within the current fiscal year’a airports capital improvement fund budget. There is a potential for reimbursement from the county’s risk management division through general liability insurance policies to offset the cost incurred by airports.
The newly extended contract with Tetra Tech provides engineering, testing and inspection services to characterize a plume of perchloroethylene/trichloroethene contamination extending south of Chino Airport through December 2012, provides four quarterly tests on each of the 33 previously installed monitoring wells; testing of the samples collected; compiling and evaluating the data obtained; and preparing a work plan and procurement support for additional groundwater characterization as mandated.
Both the county and Tetra Tech are to work with the Chino Desalter Authority and the Chino Basin Watermaster and their consultants to review and evaluate well locations, treatment methods, and preliminary designs for the Chino Creek well field. Tetra Tech will also conduct research regarding the usage and history of the airport to identify and document tenants who may have contributed and/or been the cause of contamination. The research is intended to provide information regarding the activities in which tenants were engaged,  along with the substances that might have been produced and/or stored at the airport.
The county received an updated clean-up and abatement order from the Regional Water Quality Board in June 2008. This order required the county to conduct investigation, containment and mitigation of volatile organic compounds off-site of the Chino Airport.

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