California sets nation’s first water standard for cancer-causing contaminant

Photo by Taichi Nakamura

By Rachel Becker for CalMatters

In an effort to protect more than 5 million Californians from a cancer-causing contaminant, state regulators today set a new standard that is expected to increase the cost of water for many people throughout the state. 

The State Water Resources Control Board unanimously approved the nation’s first drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, which is found naturally in some California groundwater as well as water contaminated by industries.

Now water suppliers will be forced to install costly treatment to limit the chemical in water to no more than 10 parts per billion — equivalent to about 10 drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool

California water systems are expected to spend $180 million a year to comply, including testing and treatment. The water board said the average cost for most people would be less than $20 per month, with 87% paying about $8 per month. The cost rises an average of $135 per month for people served by water agencies with fewer than 100 connections. 

Water suppliers warned officials that the costs of complying would hit low-income customers especially hard. 

Coachella City Councilman Frank Figueroa said it would cost his city $90 million to install treatment on its wells, which would increase average monthly bills by almost 500% — “an insufferable figure” for the community, where incomes average $24,000 a year per person.

Cities and water agencies said they desperately need financial help from the state.

“This year’s fiscal crunch does not bode well, and even in a good year, they (state officials) can’t get aid to everyone that needs it,” Tim Worley, managing director of the Community Water Systems Alliance, told CalMatters. 

Hexavalent chromium was made infamous by the movie “Erin Brockovich,” which dramatized Pacific Gas & Electric’s contamination of the water supply of a small California desert town. PG&E paid a $333 million settlement to about 600 Hinkley residents in 1996 who claimed they suffered high rates of cancer and other diseases.

Levels above the new state limit have been reported in about 330 sources of water supplies in California. Some of the areas affected are the counties of Sacramento, Solano, Santa Cruz, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Monterey and Merced. The highest levels found were in Riverside, Yolo, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, although water suppliers may blend or treat the water to reduce the contaminants there.

Central Coast resident Ana Maria Perez told the board that her community suffers from elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, nitrates and other contaminants. 

“I’m here because the State Water Board has again failed us,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s not fair that many people have to get sick and even die because the State Water Board has not done their job well.”

The largest water suppliers will have two years to comply; smaller ones with fewer than 1,000 connections will have four years. Many water suppliers said permitting, financing and construction timelines would make it difficult to meet these deadlines, and urged the state for more flexibility. 

“It’s untenable for some of those communities,” said Andrea Abergel, manager of water policy for the California Municipal Utilities Association. 

The new standard is one of the least protective of all the water contaminants regulated by California, according to a state analysis. 

Public health advocates had urged a more stringent standard because the one set is 500 times higher than the level that state scientists deemed a negligible, one-in-a-million cancer risk. Under the new standard, for every 2,000 people who drink the water for a lifetime, one person would be at risk of cancer.  

“Personally, I think we should go lower,” said water board member Laurel Firestone. She voted for it anyway but wants to revisit it when the standard is reviewed in five years. 

Max Costa, professor and chair of environmental medicine at NYU School of Medicine, was an expert witness for residents in the Brockovich case. When California regulators first unveiled the proposed limit, he said “it’s not terrible, but it’s not acceptable…The most acceptable level is none.”

Some hexavalent chromium occurs naturally in California’s rocks and soils; some seeps into the environment from industries that work with chrome, such as metal-plating, stainless steel production and wood preservation. 

California’s new standard is “expected to protect an estimated 5.5 million people… from potential illness due to hexavalent chromium,” according to a water board report. 

California until now limited hexavalent chromium under a combined standard of 50 parts per billion for all types of chromium, including a more benign type called trivalent chromium.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have a hexavalent chromium standard for drinking water. Instead, more than 30 years ago, it set a national standard for total chromium at 100 parts per billion, or 10 times higher than the California one for hexavalent chromium. In response to studies linking it to cancer, the EPA is now conducting a human health risk assessment for the contaminant.

A decade ago, California regulators tried to enact the same limit for hexavalent chromium but the regulation was overturned in court because it “failed to properly consider the economic feasibility of complying.” 

California regulators said their analysis now supports the feasibility because of the low per-person costs for most people and “because there are sufficient resources available.” They added, though, that they can’t guarantee state funding to assist water suppliers.

“Those same dollars are spoken for time and time again,” water board member Sean Maguire said at the hearing today. “Which is why we have so many folks who still are struggling meeting even the current standards that we have today.” 

Hexavalent chromium has long been known to cause cancer when it’s inhaled, but until recently it was controversial whether drinking it also was linked to cancer. In 2008, s study showed that rats and mice drinking high doses grew cancers in their mouths and intestines, which scientists say “clearly demonstrates” a cancer risk from consuming it.

Roberta Walker, a former resident of Hinkley, blames the contaminant for health problems that have plagued her family and community. 

The levels of contamination in Hinkley were far higher than the limits the state adopted today. But even California’s new limits, Walker said, are too high. 

“I don’t care if it’s a pinch, or a lot. A poison is poison,” Walker said. “No matter how you look at it, it’s not good.” 

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