By Mark Gutglueck
West Valley Water District Board President Channing Hawkins blocked his agency’s effort to ensure that safeguards to protect the Mid-Valley water table were incorporated into the plans ultimately approved by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors for a truck stop now being built in Bloomington, information obtained by the Sentinel indicates.
Permitting the tainted water from the run-off from the truck stop to drain into the groundwater will create a circumstance, water professionals say, that will compromise local water quality in such a way that within the next 40 to 50 years water drawn from wells within the same watershed as the truck stop will become undrinkable, requiring a cleanup effort that will cost future generations hundreds of millions of dollars to redress.
A primary consideration in Hawkins’ move to short-circuit the district’s examination of the impact the development project would have on water quality was that the project’s proponent was Nachhattar Singh Chandi, a major campaign donor to Hawkins’ employer, San Bernardino County Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr.
The project in question, the Bloomington Commercial Center, is a truck servicing facility now being built at 10951 Cedar Avenue at the southeast corner of Cedar and Santa Ana Avenue in the unincorporated county community of Bloomington, three-quarters of a mile south of the I-10 Freeway.
In some measure because of Singh’s propensity and reputation for making generous contributions to the elected political leadership in the jurisdictions in which he pursues development projects, he has been able to in effect purchase lax application of development standards that prevent exacting environmental protection standards from being applied to projects pursued and completed by his various companies and limited liability corporations functioning under the umbrella of the major corporate entity he controls, Chandi Group USA.
Singh obtained a job at a gas station at the age of 21 shortly after arriving in the United State from India in 1991. Through hard work, leverage and risk, he acquired a Black Gold gas station in 1994. Having caught on to the way in which business is transacted and the development/governmental regulation system in Riverside County plays out, he parlayed that single gas station into the acquisition of a series of gas station franchises, greasing his way from one project approval to another with generous political donations. At present he has expanded his, his wife Susana’s and Chandi Group USA’s holdings to include 49 businesses with over 370 employees, including 21 ARCO AM-PM locations, eight Express Tunnel car washes, as well as multiple Del Taco, Subway, Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Denny’s franchises. Chandi Group owns the Mecca Travel Center in Mecca in Riverside County, the major business office business complex in Indio, where Chandi Group USA is headquartered, and he has constructed a residential compound in Rancho Mirage that cost some $30 million to build and for which he has now reportedly been offered $48 million.
A major element of Chandi’s success is his willingness to provide extensive amounts of money to politicians, in particular incumbent politicians. He makes his contributions both directly to those candidates’ campaign funds, as well as to so-called “Super PACs,” political action committees, which bankroll the campaigns for favored candidates and cover the cost of attacks on disfavored candidates. Chandi put up over half of a million dollars for one such Super PAC dedicated to candidates for national office, which included $275,000 earmarked to support President Donald Trump in his 2020 reelection campaign. He was also involved in making direct contributions to U.S. Congressional candidates, particularly those in California and Southern California. He was also a major contributor to a political action committee devoted to candidates for state and local office in California. Singh in recent years has become one of the top three donors to elected officials in Riverside County, where the lion’s share of Chandi Group USA’s development and business activity takes place and most of its investments are lodged. In Indio, the geographical center of Chandi Group USA’s empire, Nachhattar Singh Chandi practically owns the Indio City Council, after having made more than $100,000 in donations to the political war chests of its members.
Chandi started out in life as the son of farmers in the impoverished northern India state of Uttar Pradesh. He resolved, at the age of 20, to come to the United States to make his way in the world. At this point, after spending three-fifths of his life in California, he has come to understand implicitly and explicitly that American politicians are for sale, and that those elected officials will clear the path for virtually any businessman who will provide them with the mother’s milk of politics – money – to keep them in office.
More than three years ago, it came to Chandi’s attention that the pay-to-play ethos is inculcated into the political culture of San Bernardino County even more than it is in Riverside County. By shifting a portion of his business and developmental focus northward and applying the same tactics of buying off the politicians there, Chandi is looking to substantially expand his financial empire. One of his first sallies across the Riverside County/San Bernardino County line was a proposal to develop what was represented as an upscale commercial project in the unincorporated community of Bloomington, what was historically an agricultural community which lies immediately adjacent to and just north of the Riverside County border and south of the cities of Rialto and Fontana.
In the 1870s, David Colton, the one-time sheriff of Siskiyou County, took on the enterprise of constructing the westernmost span of what was to be the second continental rail line into California, the Southern Pacific Railroad. Colton made the decision to build that railroad from Los Angeles on a straight line straight out toward Arizona rather than curving it up into downtown San Bernardino. Consequently, the rail line passed through what is today Bloomington. Similarly, when the Interstate 10 Freeway was laid out in 1956, it too was routed through Bloomington. Due west from Bloomington is Ontario International Airport. In addition to the freeway, four substantial east-west boulevards or roadways run through Bloomington – Valley Boulevard, Slover Avenue, Santa Ana Avenue and Jurupa Avenue. As a consequence, over the last 60 years, gradually at first and then with greater rapidity, Bloomington has lost its agricultural identity and has become much more strongly identified with the transportation and trucking industries. The 6.01-square mile community had a population of 25,482 as of July 1, 2020. As an unincorporated county community, Bloomington is larger population-wise than six of San Bernardino County’s incorporated cities and towns – Needles, Big Bear Lake, Grand Terrace, Yucca Valley, Loma Linda and Barstow. Bloomington is inhabited by a relatively unsophisticated and largely impoverished populace. The median household income is $34,106 and the median family income is $35,936. About 19.8 percent of families and 25.3 percent of the population in Bloomington live below the poverty line. Ethnically, 64.4 percent of Bloomington’s inhabitants are Hispanic. The ultimate land use authority over Bloomington resides with the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, all of the the members of which do not reside in Bloomington and who are strongly influenced driven in their decision-making by the application of political donations.
Given all of those factors, Singh perceived Bloomington as an ideal launching ground for his expansion into San Bernardino County. Initially, he obscured the consideration that the project he was proposing was a truck stop. He represented it rather as a commercial project that would be centered around what the company’s agents said would be an upscale restaurant. The center would involve retail shops, two fast-food operations and a gas station, they said. In that form, the project initially garnered support and no opposition to speak of. Over time, the project changed. The gas station became a fueling station. The retail shops became a convenience store. The fueling station became a truck servicing operation. Ultimately, the restaurant component was dropped entirely. In its final form the commercial center had transformed into a truck stop.
The general lack of sophistication of the Bloomington population and the ultimate land use authority residing with the board of supervisors conferred on Chandi Group USA two advantages which would allow it to obtain an entitlement to proceed with the project while being bound by the least cost possible in addressing its environmental impacts.
Truck stops or truck servicing facilities involve intense activity which has serious environmental implications. Indeed, typically at such facilities a number of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contamination is present, such as gasoline, diesel fuel, petroleum oil, solvents, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chemicals, asbestos and lead. Exposure to the types of contaminants present, or potentially present, at trucking facilities threatens the public health, safety or welfare of a community in which it is located and neighboring communities.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, development projects are subject to environmental certification. Unless a development is determined to be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, known by its acronym CEQA, all projects in California must undergo an examination as to their impacts as part of the approval process. Agencies with land use authority – meaning the state, counties or cities – have a degree of latitude in how intensive that examination of environmental impacts and the attendant mitigations of those impacts are going to be.
The most comprehensive examination of those impacts is a full-blown environmental impact report, an involved study of the project site prior to development, an inventory of the project site’s contents and configuration including biological and botanical resources, the project proposal, the potential and actual impacts the project will have on the site and surrounding area in terms of all conceivable issues, including land use, water use, air quality, potential contamination, noise, traffic, and biological and cultural resources. It outlines alternatives to the project, an analyses of taking no action in developing the property and specifies in detail what measures can, will and must be carried out to offset those impacts if the project is approved and the development proceeds.
There are less intensive forms of environmental certification, which include environmental statements, environmental studies and various forms of declarations.
As the Bloomington Commercial Center project was wending its way through the planning process at the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Division, Chandi went to work at compromising the political masters of the personnel in that department. He conferred substantial political contributions on the members of the board of supervisors.
Prior to his election to the board of supervisors in 2020, First District Supervisor Paul Cook was a congressman. In 2018, Nachattar Chandi provided his congressional election campaign with $2,700. Chandi’s wife, Susana, likewise that year gave Cook’s congressional campaign $2,700.
In 2019, during the run-up for her election to the board of supervisors, Dawn Rowe, who had been appointed Third District supervisor in 2018, was provided with $2,000 by Susana Chandi.
Most importantly, Nachhattar Chandi targeted the Fifth District Supervisor, since Bloomington lies entirely within San Bernardino County’s Fifth Supervisorial District. As 2020 dawned, then-Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who had been supervisor since 2004, was on her way out, as the term limits members of the board of supervisors had been subjected to since the passage of Measure P in 2006 from that point forward limited board members to three four-year terms. Chandi took no chances. He provided $4,700, the maximum amount he could under San Bernardino County’s rules with regard to contribution limits, to Dan Flores, Gonzales’s chief of staff, who was running with Gonzales’s endorsement to succeed her as supervisor. Chandi made another $2,000 contribution to then-Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez, who was also running for Fifth District supervisor. In addition, he contributed $4,700 to then-Rialto Councilman Joe Baca, Jr., who was in the race, as well. Chandi’s motivation had nothing to do with getting behind the one candidate he considered to be best qualified to serve as San Bernardino County’s Fifth District supervisor but rather to ensure that whoever won, he would stand in good stead with him.
After Flores was eliminated from the running by finishing third in the balloting that took place in conjunction with the March 3, 2020 California Presidential Primary, Armendarez and Baca went head-to-head in the November 3, 2020 election. Baca prevailed, and was sworn in on December 7, 2020.
Ultimately, under pressure from the board of supervisors, the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Division used the least exacting size-up of environmental issues pertaining to the Bloomington Commercial Center project, a mitigated negative declaration, to give Chandi Group USA clearance to proceed. In a mitigated negative declaration, the panel entrusted with a community’s ultimate land use authority, in this case the board of supervisors, undertakes an essentially cursory examination of the project before declaring that any untoward adverse environmental impacts from the project will be mitigated, or offset, by the conditions of approval of the project imposed upon the developer.
Of note is that the documents prepared for the Chandi truck stop project relating to the impact on the water table beneath the project in the weeks and months before the board of supervisors met to vote on the project on April 6 were withheld from the public. County land use services employees, asserting that the county did not own the documents and that they were the proprietary product of the consultant retained by Chandi Group USA to compile them, kept them under lock and key in a file considered off limits to anyone other than select land use services division employees. Efforts by members of the public to see those documents were rebuffed.
With the date for the board’s consideration of the project approaching, West Valley Water District Board Member Greg Young familiarized himself with the initial study for the project, noting it did not provide any detail with regard to how mitigation of polluted groundwater contaminated by tainted stormwater runoff was to occur. In January, he undertook what he described as a “two-month odyssey” in an effort to find out what treatment that stormwater runoff was going to be subjected to. The initial study made no reference to any sort of water quality assurance strategy. Young examined the county’s MS4 permit, which pertains to the county’s overall and generalized strategy for dealing with stormwater discharge. From this, he learned that a water quality mitigation plan would be a required part of the permitting of the project. His request to see that plan was denied.
The West Valley Water District serves 93,000 residents in roughly 23,000 households as well as commercial and industrial customers in large portions of Fontana and Rialto along with all of Bloomington. Young, as the representative of the Bloomington subdivision within the district, insisted that his elected position with the district entitled him to make an examination of any issues that pertained to the quality of water provided to the West Valley Water District’s customers. Met with further resistance, Young persisted, sending a series of three emails, the last of which he said was “rather strident,” to county officials demanding access to the water quality mitigation plan relating to how stormwater that would wash over the truck stop was to be diverted and treated.
At that point, Young was permitted to view the documentation under highly restrictive conditions which required that he come to the county land use services office alone and without a cellphone or any device with a camera so that he could not photograph the documents, copy them or attempt to reproduce them in any way, and that he be monitored by a land use services staff member the entire time he was perusing the documents.
Young’s examination of the water quality mitigation plan revealed that the county had allowed Chandi Group USA to utilize the least intensive and least expensive methodology to arrest the flow of pollutants that will emanate from the site once it is has been converted to a truck stop. Contained in the water quality mitigation plan was, according to Young, an inventory setting forth the types of pollutants that were anticipated to come off the project site once it was operating as a truck servicing facility, those contaminants being fuel spillage, both gasoline and diesel, petroleum products, solvents or the byproducts therefrom borne by rainwater runoff washing over the vehicles and the pavement as well as the equipment, machinery, fuel tanks, barrels, pipes, troughs and other containers and conveyances at the site. The methodology for handling that runoff was to, in Young’s words, “let the native soil” do all the work in terms of stormwater dispersal instead of more stringent mitigation options. The way in which rainwater is to be dealt with, according to the document, will involve collecting that runoff into an infiltration chamber and then simply allowing it to merge into the soil. The water in the chamber, permeated with grease, oil, solvents, gasoline, diesel fuel, radiator fluid, transmission fluid and a host of noxious chemicals that are to to get washed into the system are not to be treated.
According to Young, a consultant working for Chandi confidently declared that the water table would remain safe using that methodology, based on the theory that the ground would serve as a filter through which the water would pass but the contaminants would be caught. The consultant, Young said, maintained that “as the run-off goes through all these layers of sand, the contaminants would get captured. This method was proposed quite cavalierly, despite a long history of water contamination in the region from man-made products and chemicals.”
At that point, Young said, it was clear to him why the documentation was being hidden.
Young went to West Valley Water District headquarters, where he alerted staff to what the county was on the verge of approving. Staff members appeared to take what he was saying seriously, expressing concern about the potential the untreated stormwater runoff from the project would have on the long-term viability of the water table beneath Bloomington as a source of domestic water. Young importuned his fellow board member, Kyle Crowther, who served with him on the district’s Engineering, Operations and Planning Committee, and the district’s acting general manager, Shamindra “Ricky” Manbahal, to consider what action the district could take to ensure more responsible handling of that runoff.
Manbahal acted. On Thursday, March 25, 2021, Manbahal scheduled for the following day, March 26 at 4:30 p.m., a special meeting of the Engineering, Operations and Planning Committee. The agenda for that meeting included an item that called for the committee to “consider requesting [the] County of San Bernardino to implement additional pre-treatment practices for storm/ground water.”
To complement that meeting agenda, Manbahal authored a staff report in which he noted that the district had previous issues with regard to the contamination of the district’s water supply by perchlorate, an oxidizer in rocket propellants and fireworks first detected in some of the district’s wells in 1997. By 1998, Manbahal noted, the district “shut down several wells to avoid exposure to the drinking water supply. The West Valley Water District started to install ion exchange treatment systems in 2005, a fluidized bed bioreactor treatment plant in 2011, and a fixed bed reactor treatment plant in 2016. To date, the West Valley Water District owns and operates eight water treatment plants, six of which are for perchlorate treatment.”
Manbahal further noted that “In 2019, the West Valley Water District shut down one well in the Lytle Creek groundwater basin after discovering methyl tertiary butyl ether, a fuel oxygenate exclusively used as a fuel additive, and two wells in the Rialto-Colton basin after discovering 1,2,3-trichloropropane, an impurity in certain pesticides. No other contaminants have been detected above the maximum contaminant levels set by the State Water Resources Control Board.”
With regard to the threat posed to the district’s water sources by the insufficient treatment of the stormwater runoff from the Bloomington Commercial Center, Manbahal wrote, “A typical watershed scale stormwater management approach is using a multi-best management practices (BMP) approach to managing the quantity and quality of stormwater runoff. The BMP sequence starts with pollution prevention and progresses through source control, on-site treatment, and regional treatment before the runoff water is discharged.”
Manbahal’s report stated that “Each multi-best management practices utilizes one or more components that work together to remove pollutants utilizing combinations of processes. The multi-best management practice(s) selected can minimize the rate of runoff by utilizing a hydraulic process, remove bulk solids by utilizing a physical process, remove settleable solids and floatables by utilizing a physical process, remove suspended and colloidal solids by utilizing a physical, biological or chemical process, and remove colloidal, dissolved, volatile, and pathogens by using a biological or chemical process.”
The committee had three options, Manbahal noted, those being “1) Take no action; 2) Request [the] county to implement additional pre-treatment measures; and 3) Determine if there’s nexus to the county.”
In his report’s conclusion, Manbahal wrote, “Staff recommends that this item be submitted for consideration, and that the board of directors approve this item and authorize the acting general manager to execute the necessary documents.”
In further preparation for the specially-called March 26 Engineering, Operations and Planning Committee meeting, staff obtained a copy of the initial study for the project. Zeroing in on that portion of the study relating hydrology and water quality, an analysis of certain conclusions in the study were made. Highlighted for discussion by the committee was the assertion in the initial study that that there would be “less than significant impacts” from the completion of the project or that it would entail “any violation of any water quality standards or waste discharge requirements” or otherwise “substantially degrade surface or ground water quality.” Staff’s highlighting of passages within the document further brought into question language in the initial study that there was to be less than significant impact on the environment in terms of whether it would “decrease groundwater supplies or interfere substantially with groundwater recharge such that the project may impede sustainable groundwater management of the basin.”
Also highlighted was that efforts to control water runoff to prevent groundwater contamination specified in the report were only temporary ones that would be in place during the construction phase.
That highlighted text was “All individual projects implemented under the county’s general plan would comply with applicable federal, state, and local water quality regulations. Currently, the County of San Bernardino follows state standards for water quality and does not have their own specific standards. During construction, the proposed project would be required to obtain coverage under the state’s General Permit for Construction Activities that is administered by the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Storm water management measures would be required to be identified and implemented that would effectively control erosion and sedimentation and other construction-based pollutants during construction.”
Handwritten in the margin was “Post Construction?” That suggested water district staff believed there would be inadequate monitoring and safeguards once the project is completed.
Further highlighted for the committee’s review was language in the initial study relating to the county’s MS4 permit. An MS4 permit is a document issued by the federal government to a state, city, town, village, or other public entity which allows that jurisdiction to run a series of surface water or stormwater handling conveyances or conveyance systems to discharge that water either into the ground or into a stream, river or body of water. An MS4 permit is issued generally to the governmental jurisdiction for all of its discharge activity rather than any single release of water in a limited or circumscribed geographical area.
The language in the initial study stated, “Compliance with the county’s low impact development (LID) ordinance and the San Bernardino County MS4 permit requires capture and treatment of the 85th percentile, 24-hour storm event. As part of the project’s final design review, the project would be required to submit a water quality maintenance plan demonstrating adequate stormwater retention using infiltration basins, bioretention areas, capture and controlled release tanks, or another best management practice. Such best management practices would slow the velocity of water and allow sediment and debris to settle out of the water column, thereby minimizing the potential for downstream flooding, erosion/siltation, or exceedances of stormwater drainage system capacity. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency Flood Insurance Rate Map, the project site is located in Zone X, a designation that is used for areas where there is minimal flood hazard. Given that the project would implement best management practices to capture and retain stormwater on-site, as described above for compliance with the county’s low impact development ordinance and MS4 permit requirements, potential impacts related to the alteration of the site’s drainage pattern would be less than significant.” Noted in handwriting in staff’s copy of the initial study was “Chemicals going into the ground!”
Staff’s copy of the initial study contained this highlighted passage: “As described above, the project would implement on-site storage of stormwater runoff, as required pursuant to the county’s low impact development ordinance, providing an opportunity for debris, sediment, and sediment-bound pollutants to settle out of the water column prior to discharge downstream. The requirements of the county’s low impact development ordinance and the applicable MS4 permit are intended to protect water quality and support attainment of water quality standards in downstream receiving water bodies. The project does not involve use of septic systems, pet parks, agricultural land or other land uses commonly associated with high concentrations of nutrients, indicator bacteria, or chemical toxicity. Neither construction nor operation of the proposed project conflict with or obstruct implementation of a water quality control plan or sustainable groundwater management plan. No impact would occur. Therefore, no significant adverse impacts are identified or anticipated, and no mitigation measures are required.” Handwritten into the document at that point was, “What!?”
Indications were that the district’s staff was preparing a case to support the West Valley Water District’s board of directors if the Engineering, Operations and Planning Committee recommended that the district request the county to implement additional pre-treatment measures, and the full board indeed elected to follow that recommendation.
Upon learning that the Engineering, Operations and Planning Committee and members of staff were contemplating having the district second-guess the county with regard to its land use decision on Chandi’s proposed truck stop project, Hawkins, who is employed in Baca’s supervisorial office as his special advisor, in the words of one West Valley Water District employee, “went ballistic.”
Interrupting Chandi’s developmental intent in Bloomington or San Bernardino County was contrary to Hawkins’ personal interest on multiple levels.
An immediate consideration for Hawkins is that his employment contract with Baca’s office provides him with total annual compensation of $187,271, consisting of a salary of $115,086 and benefits of $72,185. If the agency he heads as an elected board member/appointed president – the West Valley Water District – brought into question the environmental safeguards relating to the Bloomington Commercial Center, that action carried with it the potential of blocking or delaying approval of the project or resulting in Chandi Group USA being required to augment the project with an expensive set of water treatment systems to allow the stormwater to be discharged into the local water table. Such a requirement could tack on added costs of a half million dollars or more that Chandi Group USA would have to bear. Crossing up Chandi, one of Baca’s major political benefactors, in that way could very well be seen as an act of disloyalty on Hawkins’s part, or at least a sign that he was insufficiently committed to Baca’s agenda and was putting a higher priority on his own interests at the water district. As Hawkins serves at the pleasure of Baca, he would run the risk of losing his job if the district took action to complicate the approval of the Bloomington Commercial Center.
A longer-term consideration for Hawkins is the mutual, indeed intertwined, political interest he has with Baca in staying on the good side of the deep-pocketed Chandi. After graduating from Howard University in 2001, Hawkins went to work as a field representative for Joe Baca, Sr., who was a Congressman from 1999 until 2013, representing first the 42nd Congressional District and then the 43rd Congressional District. It is widely assumed that Joe Baca, Jr. has aspirations of replicating at least some if not all of the political ground covered by his father. Joe Baca, Sr., prior to becoming a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was both a California State Senator and an Assemblyman. It is further assumed that upon leaving the board of supervisors for higher office, Joe Baca, Jr., who served as a member of the California State Assembly for a single two-year term from 2004 through 2006 and is yet eligible to serve ten more years in the California Legislature, will look, perhaps, toward a return to Sacramento. His name recognition and established political career would also make him, at some point, a logical eventual candidate for Congress. Baca is very likely to endorse Hawkins as his successor as supervisor, should he seek higher office. Baca’s chief of staff, Ed Chavez, is not a resident of the Fifth District and is therefore not eligible, at present, to succeed Baca. In a circumstance in which Baca makes an effort to take on a legislative role in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. and Hawkins vies for supervisor, Chandi’s financial support and that of his employees at Chandi Group USA could be crucial to both of those electoral efforts.
Thus, the contemplated move by the West Valley Water District to at the very least complicate Chandi Group USA’s effort to get an entitlement for the Bloomington Commercial Center to proceed carried with it a potential negative political implication for Hawkins he ultimately acted to circumvent.
The Sentinel is informed that Hawkins vectored maximum force toward Mandahal, upbraiding him for indulging Young in his move, which involved Board Member Kyle Crowther, in making an issue of the fashion in which the stormwater runoff at the project was to be dealt with.
Manbahal, who was hired as the district’s chief financial and administrative officer in August 2019, in December 2019 moved into the role of de facto general manager of the district after 16 of the district’s department heads alleged mismanagement and favoritism on the part of then-General Manager Clarence Mansell, and Mansell became a virtual recluse in his own office for the next ten months. Mansell went out on paid leave in October 2020, at which point Manbahal officially moved into the role of interim district general manager. Indications are that Manbahal was and is looking toward succeeding Mansell in the role of full-fledged general manager. Hawkins threatened to dash that prospect forthwith upon learning of the specially-called March 26 Operations and Planning Committee meeting, the Sentinel was told, accompanied by intimations that any other staff that embraced the call for having the district request that the county implement additional pre-treatment measures of the runoff of that water before it is injected into the local water table were likewise risking losing their positions with West Valley.
Manbahal, with Hawkins gunning for him if he did not prevent the Engineering, Operations and Planning Committee inquiry from metastasizing into an interruption of the Bloomington Commercial Center’s approval, obtained from Joanne Chan, the district’s operations manager, a statement in an email that “The county’s measures are in compliance with the provisions of the Clean Water Act.”
The county, Chan indicated in the email, as the permit holder was to “monitor discharges and comply with all regulated water quality standards and submit required reports to the Regional Water Quality Control Board.” In addition, Chan stated that the “Stormwater pollution prevention plan lists all activities and conditions at the site that could cause water pollution and lists detailed steps the facility will take to prevent the discharge of any unpermitted pollution.”
Furthermore, Chan noted that the county was the MS4 permit holder and that county staff should be relied upon to “inspect the site for stormwater compliance. The risk level is determined by many factors, including the type of business activity, the Standard Industrial Classification Code, applicable state permits, hazardous material use, and other factors. The San Bernardino County Department of Public Works determines the risk level for the business based on the following factors, including, but not limited to: hazardous materials used on site, the potential for pollutant discharges, ongoing efforts to implement effective best management practices, site size and location, including proximity to rivers and streams.”
Chan said of the water quality management plan for the project, “As required by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, this plan is intended to provide information related to the project’s generation and mitigation of water quality pollutants and assessment of hydrological impacts.”
At that point, the Sentinel is informed, Greg Young, who was the most passionate advocate of the district taking a stand and holding the county to account, and Crowther, who also had expressed concern about the disposition of the stormwater runoff from the project, elected to drop the matter, given their impression that pressing it might result in Hawkins terminating Manbahal and any other staff members who defied his wishes. The committee tabled the issue.
On April 6, the board of supervisors met and unanimously approved allowing the Bloomington Commercial Center to proceed. The board pushed ahead with granting the project a mitigated negative declaration, glossing over what was for the county’s planning professionals an embarrassing, indeed mortifying, moment when the documentation for compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act to justify that declaration was examined. To those paying attention, it was clear the Chandi Group USA’s consultant had used material that was copied and pasted from a previous document for a different project in Sun Valley, in Riverside County. The board of supervisors ignored that faux pas, doing nothing to have the documentation corrected or examined for integrity, accepting an inapplicable reference as the justification for the action it took.
In the aftermath of the board’s vote, the Sentinel initiated inquiries with both Baca and Hawkins relating to the environmental implication of the Chandi Group USA’s Bloomington truck stop project.
The Sentinel sought from each whether they believed the collection of the contaminant-laden strormwater run-off from the Chandi truck stop into an infiltration chamber and then injecting that unfiltered and unscreened water into the water table is a safe and acceptable methodology for dealing with stormwater at that site.
The Sentinel asked both Baca and Hawkins if they were concerned with the impact the long-term accumulation of contaminants emanating from the Chandi truck stop will have on the viability of the Mid-Valley aquifer as a future water source.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins if he believe it proper for the board of supervisors to have allowed the environmental certification of the Chandi truck stop project to have taken place by means of a mitigated negative declaration rather than a full-blown environmental impact report.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins if he was in any way alarmed or concerned at the way in which the county withheld the documents relating to the environmental certification of this project, most particularly with regard to water quality impacts, from the public.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins if he perhaps did not fully understand or appreciate the potential that the Chandi truck stop will have on water quality in the Mid-Valley.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins why he had sought to prevent the district or one of its divisions or committees from looking into the water treatment methodology that is to be used at the Chandi truck stop, and if he was in some fashion requested or ordered by Supervisor Baca to take the action that he did in his capacity as board president to prevent the West Valley Water District from making an inquiry into the water treatment methodology that is to be used at the Chandi Group USA truck stop. The Sentinel asked if Hawkins on his own, out of concern that allowing the West Valley Water Board or one of its divisions or committees to carry out such an inquiry might result in his termination with Supervisor Baca’s office, acted to prevent an inquiry into the water treatment methodology that is to be used at the Chandi Group USA truck stop.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins for his response to those who have suggested that he betrayed the confidence and trust of those who elected him to the West Valley Water District board by preventing an inquiry into the water treatment methodology that is to be used at the Chandi truck stop. The Sentinel asked Hawkins why he had not stood up for his constituents and ensured that there were adequate safeguards put in place to protect the groundwater beneath the Mid-Valley in the face of the challenge represented to it by the advent of the Chandi truck stop.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins if he had quantified, in monetary terms, the amount of savings that Chandi Group USA realized by not having to create a system to purge the contaminants in the stormwater run-off to be collected in the infiltration chamber before that water is injected into the water table.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins if Nachhattar Singh Chandi’s status as one of Joe Baca, Jr.’s primary political donors had any impact on his or the district’s stance with regard to the Chandi Group USA’s truck stop project. The Sentinel asked Hawkins if he was counting upon the financial support of Nachhattar Singh Chandi in any of his future political endeavors.
The Sentinel asked Hawkins if there was some benign reason for the West Valley Water District not carrying out an inquiry into the water treatment methodology that is to be used at the Chandi truck stop and if he could express why the district rejected the concept of reviewing the county’s action in approving the Chandi truck stop project.
Neither Baca nor Hawkins responded to to the Sentinel’s inquiries.
On April 20, Naseem Farooqi, the West Valley Water District’s public affairs manager, who had been detailed to field the questions asked of Hawkins, responded.
“Although in our normal course of business we would not be involved in stormwater management of municipal discharge issues, our staff attempted to acknowledge a question posed by a board member. This is not our field of expertise and it is not the agency’s role to permit or prohibit these issues,” Farooqi stated.
Through other means, those affiliated with the district sought to unofficially convey to the Sentinel that the West Valley Water District does not involve itself in land use decisions made by the county, even when those decisions relate to property that overlaps the district’s jurisdiction. It was made clear to the Sentinel that the West Valley Water District does not apply for nor issue separate MS4 stormwater or sewer system permits, and that it does not have the role or staffing to analyze if a potential stormwater discharge complies with existing laws and regulations. Responsibility for the Chandi Development project resided with the County of San Bernardino, those sources speaking to the Sentinel on background insisted. It was pointed out that county staff members inspect both commercial and industrial sites for stormwater discharge compliance. The only stormwater discharge permit the West Valley Water District maintains, the Sentinel was informed, is a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board to ensure that the district’s water treatment discharges are in compliance with provisions of the Clean Water Act.
Board Member Greg Young, while acknowledging that the district does not have land use authority within its jurisdiction and that in this case the methodology for offsetting any impacts upon water quality were overseen by the county, nevertheless pointed out that the West Valley Water District staff, in preparing its report for the March 26 Engineering, Operations and Planning Committee meeting, had circled in on a crucial shortcoming in how the county is planning to deal with the stormwater runoff at the Chandi truck stop site.
“Infiltration chambers are a best management practice, but are ones that should be used in conjunction with other best management practices to ensure maximum containment of pollutants,” Young said. “The county’s practice of using infiltration alone is the exact opposite of what Ricky Manbahal, the district’s general manager, described in his staff report. My entire premise is if you are going to use infiltration, it needs to be in conjunction with other types of pre-treatment as Ricky is describing in his report.”
The Sentinel pressed forward with seeking to get from both Channing and some of the district’s senior staff members whether they felt, irrespective of what the county’s authority and decision was, that using a mitigated negative declaration to do the environmental certification for the Chandi Truck Stop project was advisable.
The Sentinel also inquired of West Valley Water District Acting General Manager Shamindra Manbahal, Operations Manager Joanne Chan and Water Quality Supervisor Janet Harmon, all of whom are steeped in knowledge and expertise about water, its sourcing and quality in ways in which the members of the county board of supervisors are not, whether they considered using an infiltration tank to collect the stormwater runoff from the project and then injecting it into the water table without first screening out the oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, solvents, petroleum products or their byproducts or other chemicals is an acceptable methodology of dealing with that stormwater.
This provoked Farooqi, who suggested the Sentinel was acting unethically in seeking to have Hawkins, Manbahal and Chan respond to the original questions asked of them which they had chosen to not answer.
Emphasizing the contention that the district did not have land use or water quality permitting authority within its jurisdiction, Farooqi said the Sentinel’s presentation of information in the emails containing those questions was “incredibly inaccurate and misleading. On multiple occasions, the West Valley Water District provided you with detailed and factual information by our licensed engineers regarding our scope of responsibility and authority. Your statement regarding the opinion of the professionals within our water district is inaccurate. As I shared in my previous email, the committee (G. Young, Crowther) decided to take no action. Any further allegations fall very far from the truth.”
Farooqi then added a statement attributed to Kyle Crowther, who is the West Valley Water Board’s vice president, worded as follows: “In March, we met with staff on this issue and our staff recommended no action needed to be taken based on the fact that the West Valley Water District does not oversee, permit or prohibit municipal discharges. Understanding that these issues are not within our agency’s field of expertise or role, Director Greg Young and I accepted this recommendation.”
This was followed by this statement attributed to Hawkins: “This issue was discussed at the Engineering, Operations, and Planning Committee. However, the committee did not elect to forward this item to the full board; therefore, neither I or the full board have been involved whatsoever.”
Young said, “As I became aware of the issues and what the county was doing, I reached out to my colleague and fellow Engineering and Planning Committee member, Kyle Crowther. We jointly decided to call a special meeting to discuss the possibility of issuing a letter of concern to the county. However, it was very clear that there was a lot of anxiety from the staff about getting involved into the business of the county even if it may affect us in the future. Since there was so much anxiety about speaking out to the county on a matter entirely in their jurisdiction, I decided to not push staff and my fellow board members any further on the subject and instead decided to pursue my existing efforts with the Coalition for a Better Bloomington and the board of supervisors.”
Young added, “I will continue to speak out against any agency large or small engaged in practices that expose our valuable water resources to potential contamination. I would always welcome any of my colleagues in the entire water industry and West Valley to join me in such efforts to advocate for protecting our groundwater from preventable contamination. The county’s lowest common denominator approach to protecting our water should not be allowed to continue without the raising of concern, and we as leaders in our community should be willing to stand up to such a lax practice. I would warmly welcome them to stand with me. This is about more than just Bloomington. This could hurt many communities throughout the county if this continues.”
By Mark Gutglueck