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Environmental groups sue over chromium 6

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the California Department of Public Health for failing to establish a safe drinking water standard for chromium 6 — the cancer-causing chemical at the heart of the Hinkley residents’ class action suit over groundwater contamination.

Though groundwater in Hinkley contains more than 100 times the amount of chromium 6 considered safe by the state, the water is considered legal in the absence of a primary drinking water standard.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group claim the department is eight years late in setting the standard for chromium 6, also called hexavalent chromium, and has made no progress toward the goal.

The lawsuit claims the delay is unjustified and seeks a court order setting a faster time line.

“The main point is that California legislation required by Jan. 1, 2004 for the Department of Public Health to set a health standard for  hexavalent chromium — that was over eight years ago,” said Nicholas Morales, attorney for the NRDC.

Former Hinkley resident John Runkle called it “absolutely atrocious” that the state hasn’t yet set a health standard for chromium 6. The groundwater on his former property had as much as 4.5 parts per billion of the toxic metal, which is why they didn’t drink the water, he said, but instead had water hauled to the property.

Studies show that chromium 6 can cause cancer in people and has been found to cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes and liver of animals.

The chemical comes chiefly from industrial pollution — it’s used for production of stainless steel, textile dyes, wood preservation, leather tanning and as an anti-corrosive — but also occurs naturally.

The chromium 6 contamination in Hinkley began in the 1950s when Pacific Gas and Electric used chromium 6 in cooling tower water in order to prevent rusting in its compressor station in Hinkley. The water was released into unlined ponds at the site, where it slowly seeped into the groundwater. PG&E has been ordered by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board to stop the spread of the chemical and reduce it to background levels.

Results of state water quality testing conducted between 2000 and 2011 throughout California showed that about a third of the 7,000 drinking water sources tested had chromium 6 levels at or above that limit.

The highest concentrations were reported in Southern California, including in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties.

Department of Public Health spokesman Ken August said there is no typical time line for how long it takes to develop a standard. The agency is currently preparing a cost-benefit analysis, he said, and will take another two to three years to establish the standard.

Staff writer Katie Lucia contributed to this report.

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