By Ruth Musser-Lopez
The California Department of Toxics Substance Control on January 31 convened a public meeting at the Needles Senior Center to provide information about the effort to redress chromium contamination from a facility Pacific Gas & Electric maintained.
Pacific Gas & Electric in the 1940s and 1950s established a natural gas transmission system that ran from the oil and gas fields of western Texas and New Mexico, across Arizona and then into California to power plants and customers between Bakersfield and the Oregon border whose numbers would eventually reach 4.2 million. Pacific Gas & Electric established a network of eight compressor stations linked by 40,000 miles of distribution pipelines and over 6,000 miles of transportation pipelines to get the natural gas to its various destinations. Until 1966, the company used hexavalent chromium, also referred to as chromium 6, as a rust suppressor it the cooling towers for those compressor stations.
Pacific Gas & Electric disposed of that chromium 6-laced water in unlined trenches near those stations. This resulted in the chromium 6, now recognized as being highly toxic, leaching into the soil and groundwater.
On January 31 the Department of Toxic Substance Control previewed and summarized what is called the “Draft Subsequent Environmental Impact Report for the Draft Pacific Gas & Electric Topock Compressor Station Final Groundwater Remediation Project, also known as the “draft environmental impact report.” State officials heard comments from the public with regard to the planned clean-up project of the so-called “Bat Cave Wash” Chromium 6 plume. Bat Cave Wash is a drainage area subject to intermittent desert flash floods which issue out of the mountain slopes alongside of Pacific Gas & Electric’s compressor station adjacent to the Interstate 40 bridge crossing over the Colorado River south of Needles into Arizona.
Roughly 30 people were present, one third of whom appeared to be either California Department of Toxics Substance Control staff or Pacific Gas & Electric representatives. Another third appeared to be members or representatives of the local Native American tribal authorities. The 47-day public comment period opened on January 12, 2017 and will close on February 27, 2017, during which time written comment may be filed. The hearing was held for the purpose of receiving oral comments. Public comments will be taken into consideration by Karen Baker, California Department of Toxics Substance Control deputy director, who will make all decisions with regard to the project going forward and any public requests to extend the review period.
The plan to remediate groundwater has the objective of reducing the mass, toxicity, mobility volume and concentration of the hexavalent chromium plume. One of the treatment technologies to be used is a method to treat groundwater in place with a degradable food-grade organic compound (“ethanol”) as opposed to pumping and circulating water through a separate above ground treatment plant. The treatment involves an in-place recirculation flushing system using injection and extraction wells, pipes, and dams, and is billed as a method of reducing and converting hexavalent chromium to a “relatively insoluble trivalent chromium form.“ Using an ethanol additive purposed to be injected into newly constructed wells, then flushing the groundwater towards the river where extraction wells would siphon and recycle the water back to the injection wells, representatives of the California Department of Toxics Substance Control appeared confident in their presentation that their plan will work. The stated remedy asserts that the reduced chromium would precipitate or become adsorbed onto soils below the water table and thereby be removed from groundwater.
To questions posed after the meeting, the California Department of Toxics Substance Control project manager Aaron Yue acknowledged to the Sentinel that the flushing system has the downside of using clean water. Clean water would be mixed with and would dilute the foul water. The clean water would come from the extraction wells adjacent to the Colorado River that have a purpose of drawing up the converted groundwater but would also draw surrounding river water as well. “Fresh” water would also be hauled in from an arsenic-laced source on the Arizona side of the adjacent river. The plan design calls for filtering the arsenic from the Arizona water before injecting it into California wells.
The draft environmental impact report was prepared to conform with the California Environmental Quality Act. Both the plan and the project are funded by Pacific Gas & Electric. The document describes the proposed project, including the area of potential impact, environmental setting, the anticipated impact upon that setting, and any proposed impact alleviation measures that are planned or built into the project design. The California Environmental Quality Act requires supplemental documentation when there are known changes to the environment, since the original impact assessment was completed or when required by law due to a prescribed time lapse between the assessment completion and the commencement date of the project. The supplemental requirement is to protect the public out of concern that environmental considerations have changed or conditions in the environment emerge that had not been taken into consideration previously.
New information is available since what was previously billed as the final “Environmental Impact Report” and “groundwater remedy” plan was put forth in 2011 with regard to impacts upon air quality, hazards and hazardous materials, hydrology and water quality biological resources, utilities, service systems and energy, water supply, aesthetics, noise and cultural resources. The report asserts that there will be less than a significant impact after mitigation in all of these areas except in the area of the last three, aesthetics, noise and cultural resources, where there will be a significant and unavoidable as well as a cumulative impact as a result of project implementation.
During the presentation, the project manager, Aaron Yue, added that the City of Needles will not be impacted, which statement prompted an immediate reaction from those in attendance, followed by assertions that the city and its citizens had certainly been damaged and suffered from the effects of the dumping by Pacific Gas & Electric. In the early 1990s it was learned that Pacific Gas & Electric had disposed of chromium in the city landfill. The landfill is now shut down, forcing the community to have its waste hauled to Arizona and leaving the residents without a place to dispose of even their organic debris, branches and limbs. In response to an inquiry as to why the California Department of Toxics Substance Control was not requiring Pacific Gas & Electric to compensate the community for its loss, Yue replied that monitoring wells had been installed at the landfill but that no chromium plume had been detected there and that any other issues with regard to compensation for the closure is beyond the scope of the current project.
At the hearing a power point presentation was narrated by various staff members of California Department of Toxics Substance Control before public comments were allowed to commence. Only one member of the public chose to make a statement at the hearing in Needles. It was noted that none of the Needles City Council members were present and that a major portion of the community had not received notification that the meeting was to take place.
The Sentinel has learned that there are outstanding questions with regard to the integrity of the environmental analysis as contained within the archaeological studies carried out by the archaeological consulting firm Applied Earthworks, Inc., which failed to carry out empirical testing to establish the age and significance the nearby “Mystic Maze,” about the historical pedigree of which there is some doubt. Applied Earthworks, Inc’s conclusion that the maze qualifies as prehistoric was based not on its own empirical investigation but on what some maintain were previous unfounded assumptions in the National Register nomination.
There were suggestions that Applied Earthworks had given short shrift to the significance of numerous historically valuable features in Needles as part of an effort to steamroll over environmental considerations in its rush to comply with the agenda of the city and Caltrans in their efforts to obtain project or program approval. It was asserted that Applied Earthworks, Inc had shortchanged the community after it had been paid to record and document potential National Register properties but failed to properly list historic structures including a 3-story building over 100 years old that was constructed using an ancient Mojave Indian technology involving the use of arrowweed. A request was made that the California Department of Toxics Substance Control revisit the issue of archaeological evaluation in the environmental impact report using another entity to perform the analysis.
California Department of Toxics Substance Control spokesperson Maya Akula informed the audience that no responses would be provided during the formal public hearing, but that staff was on hand to answer questions and explain the project before and after the hearing.
Written comments may be mailed to Mr. Aaron Yue, Project Manager, Department of Toxic Substances Control, 5796 Corporate Avenue, Cypress, CA 90630 or emailed to aaron.Yue@dtsc.ca.gov. on or before February 27, 2017.
It has been requested that the Needles City Council provide an opportunity for the public to address the matter of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control remediation plan and environmental impact report related for the Pacific Gas & Electric hexavalent chromium “flushing” and dilution solution strategy at its February 14, 2017 meeting. Concerns expressed in the request extend to the use of arsenic contaminated water imported from Arizona wells, the closure of the city’s landfill as a consequence of Pacific Gas & Electric ‘s chromium dumping there and potential adverse impacts the remediation effort as outlined in the environmental impact report, including the loss of tourism from road closures and the ending of access to the Mystic Maze.
By Ruth Musser-Lopez