State Agency Focusing On Potential Chromium 6 Contamination in Needles

(December 21)   NEEDLES—Pacific Gas & Electiric’s  disposal of material, some allegedly laden with highly toxic hexavalent chromium in washes and on relic river terraces adjacent to the Colorado River near Park Moabi more than two decades ago has resulted in complications now threatening public health as well as water and soil quality requiring a cleanup effort that will likely take decades to complete.
While a water remediation protocol has been established, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has now initiated a massive toxic soil investigation which some Needles residents say is not properly focused upon the full extent of the Chromium 6 aspect of the contamination problem. Residents and at least one former municipal official have told the Sentinel a more comprehensive soils survey is needed on the ground beneath and around a local landfill where Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is known to have disposed of toxic soils and materials.
As described in the notice for a draft environmental impact report, the project under consideration is not in itself an actual cleanup or soil remediation project, but merely involves the adoption and implementation of a “soil work plan” to further study the lateral and vertical extent of toxic contamination where data gaps now exist.   Included among the named toxics are hexavalent chromium, asbestos, various metals, polychlorinated biphenyl, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins/furans, and an unidentified white powder.    The full title of the soil work plan is “Soil RCRA Facility Investigation/Remedial Investigation Work Plan, PG&E Topock Compressor Station, Needles, California, prepared in September 2012 on behalf of Pacific Gas and Electric Company” by CH2MHill, a firm located in Oakland, California.
Should the soil work plan be adopted and implemented by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the “further investigation” or project under environmental review would entail the characterization of the nature and extent of contamination identified during previous soil investigations and would not involve actual remediation.  Despite the fact that no remediation or removal program has yet been proposed, the DTSC has determined that there may be a significant impact on the environment and has determined that an environmental impact report (EIR) will be necessary to fully evaluate the potential environmental effects of the various activities involved in investigating and characterizing suspect soils.
The project as currently described does not identify cleanup alternatives. The project is intended to provide additional data, which will be used in the preparation of a separate study that is not a part of the current proposed project.  The second and separate study has been described as a future “Soil Corrective Measures Study/Feasibility Study (CMS/FS)” which would identify remediation alternatives if necessary.   A third planned report, also not a part of the current project nor a remediation project, will “present a combined data set of all soils investigations.”  The currently proposed project involves the collection of surface and subsurface soil and sediment samples, and the chemical analysis of those samples for “chemicals of potential concern” (COPCs) based on the historical use of the area and previous soil investigations.  In addition, some areas would be investigated using geophysical methods to identify subsurface objects.  The proposed soil work plan activities for the project include acquiring permission or permits to access certain restricted areas, creating physical access to certain locations (e.g., grading, boulder or vegetation removal), drilling trenching or excavating to access soil samples, collecting and preserving soil samples, performing certain field analyses and collecting and preserving samples, properly abandoning boreholes and backfilling of trenches and excavations, transporting the samples to the analytical laboratory, analyzing the samples for selected COPCs, evaluating and presenting the data in a written report, managing investigation-derived waste, conducting preconstruction biological and archaeological surveys, and identifying potential conflicts with subsurface utilities.
Twenty-eight areas of concern are being evaluated and may have been contaminated due to past practices and/or proximity to the Pacific Gas & Electric Topock Compressor Station one-half mile west of the Colorado River, just south of Interstate 40 near the bridge. In addition, there are six areas that may be contaminated because proper protective practices were not in place when solid wastes were managed there.  An area called the “potential pipeline disposal area” is proposed to be included in a geophysical survey to identify the presence of historically buried asbestos-containing pipes.  Three oil/water units, the perimeter fencing area of the station and the onsite storm drain system which includes both active and inactive lines and outfalls are also proposed for investigation.
Hexavalent Chromium, also known as Chromium 6, is a highly toxic chemical that was used to combat corrosion in the cooling towers of compressor stations used to pressurize a natural gas line owned by PG&E that ran from the fields where the gas was extracted in west Texas and New Mexico across Arizona and the Colorado River and through California up to San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s. Pacific Gas & Electric ceased using Chromium 6 as an anti-corrosive agent in 1966 and disposed of much of it in unlined trenches near Hinkley, resulting in extensive contamination of the water table in that area and leading to a lawsuit that resulted in a $333 million civil settlement in 1994, what was then the largest such settlement in American history.
The area in which proposed project activities could occur due to suspected unauthorized dumping of solid wastes potentially laced with Chromium 6 covers additional surrounding land owned and managed by a number of private entities and government agencies, including the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lands managed by the Department of Interior, U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), rights of way for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and California Department of Transportation, and access over a portion of land owned by the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe.
The station, which occupies 66.8 acres of land owned by PG&E is 12 miles southeast of the city of Needles and one mile southwest of the Moabi Regional Park in California.  The station is one-half mile west of the community of Topock, Arizona, which is situated directly across the Colorado River from the Station and four miles south of Golden Shores, Arizona.
Three public scoping meetings were held last week, two of which were held in  Yuma and Golden Shores, both in Arizona.  The California scoping hearing was held in Needles.   Some members of the public attending the public scoping meeting held at Needles High School Auditorium on December 12 expressed both concern and indignation.  Concerns included the potential health effect of airborne toxic dust, contamination of local drinking water supplies while waiting for the studies to be completed, and the impact to the local economy by being stigmatized as a community inhibited by toxic pollution. Others expressed concern that the landfill where hexavalent chromium was disposed of in the early 1990s was not being included in the survey.
Former Needles councilwoman Ruth Musser-Lopez, who still lives in the area, told the Sentinel that two decades ago Pacific Gas & Electric’s disposal of hexavalent chromium at the city landfill located on federal land managed by the BLM, but at that time leased to the county and subleased to the city was an issue that was glossed over by municipal and other officials. Ultimately, Musser-Lopez said, the issue was side-tracked when officials focused on determining the identities of low-level Bureau of Land Management employees who had anonymously revealed what they claimed was illegal and unlicensed disposal of sewer sludge and hexavalent chromium in the landfill.
Musser-Lopez said she was heartened by the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s focus on PG&E’s disposal practices at the Topcock facility and the other areas of concern but that she was simultaneously disappointed that the focus did not extend to the contamination in and around the landfill, which is more proximate to the city and population of Needles.
“We’re talking about a toxic lethal chemical, chromium 6, and asbestos problems right next to the same river that Orange, San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Mexico drink from,” she said. “When I asked at the Needles scoping session on December 12 why the landfill was not being included in the survey, an explanation was provided that the landfill area is regulated by separate laws and thus was not a part of the current study. It’s been two decades since contaminated soil has been identified and the mess is still not cleaned up. I hold PG&E managers, those managers running the landfill—the city of Needles, the county of San Bernardino and the Bureau of Land Management responsible for what happened at the landfill.  They were more interested in silencing me and the speech of whistleblowers who talked to me.  If that effort and money would have been spent on the cleanup rather than hushing public outcry, speech and disclosure, we would be much further ahead. Our children and their children would be much safer and we would have a properly managed recycling and disposal facility.”
She called upon DTSC to widen its survey to include the landfill and the soil surrounding it.
Comments are presently being accepted during a 45-day scoping period that ends at 5 p.m. on January 14, 2013.   The public is encouraged to submit comments regarding the scope and content of the project and the environmental information to be contained in the draft EIR. Questions, information, concerns and comments of the public are to be considered by Department of Toxic Substances Control and for review in the draft EIR.  For more information, the public is directed to the Project Manager, Aaron Yue at (714)484-5439 or the public participation specialist, Jacqueline Martinez at (714) 484-5338.  Information is also available at

Leave a Reply