The San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority filed suit against 67 parties identified as responsible for cleanup of groundwater contamination in the South El Monte area to recover the costs of building and operating cleanup facilities.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court under the federal Superfund law, asks for reimbursement of in excess of $5 million in cleanup costs through April 30, plus future cleanup costs that have not been determined.
"We are suing the parties that have not demonstrated a willingness to step up and take responsibility for cleanup of the contaminants that threaten our local water supply," said Bob Kuhn, chairman of the WQA board.
WQA officials said they had been engaged in settlement talks with 19 of the responsible parties, but those talks broke down late last week.
In addition, 10 parties in the South El Monte area have been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as lacking financial resources and have qualified for "Ability To Pay" settlements with EPA.
"The parties we are suing have been identified by the U.S. EPA as being responsible for discharging the wastes or having realized financial gain as a result of owning the property where the wastes were discharged," said WQA board member Ken Manning. "However, we are not going to take legal action against those that the EPA has qualified under the Ability To Pay program."
Most of the parties have adequate resources to meet their cleanup obligations, Kuhn said. Those who do not can choose to apply to the EPA for determining their ability to pay. Also, federal funds are available to reimburse WQA for a portion of the costs and provide an incentive for the parties to negotiate and reach a settlement.
"Parties that begin good faith negotiations and settle will have an opportunity to receive support from the federal reimbursement funds," Kuhn said. "Those that show no inclination to enter productive settlement talks and reach a settlement will have to take their chances in court."
This is the third lawsuit filed by the WQA in the past two years against parties identified as responsible for the federal Superfund cleanup in the San Gabriel Valley where industrial contaminants threaten the aquifer that provides an inexpensive source of drinking water for more than 1 million people.
Earlier this year, the WQA and other water entities succeeded in securing a $250 million cleanup agreement with responsible parties in the Baldwin Park-Azusa area. The agency's attention is now focused on the South El Monte area where major plumes of underground contamination have forced the closure of many wells.
Several years of negotiations with responsible parties in the South El Monte area have not brought a settlement. Meanwhile, the water supply situation has become urgent because spreading contamination continues to force the closure of water wells.
Cleanup efforts have accelerated recently because of the settlement in the Baldwin Park-Azusa area and because the EPA recently sent Special Notice Letters to responsible parties in the South El Monte area calling on each to make a Good Faith Offer to fund construction and operation of cleanup facilities.
Ultimately, the parties will be required to fund the full cleanup of contaminants in this area. But the WQA and local water providers want to negotiate a settlement that also restores the safe, clean drinking water that has been lost due to the contamination.
The WQA was created by the state Legislature in 1992 to coordinate and accelerate the Superfund cleanup effort at six major areas in the San Gabriel Basin. The WQA, local water providers and the federal Bureau of Reclamation have funded several cleanup plants to help contain and address the problem until the overall EPA solution could be developed. Under the Superfund law, the WQA and others can sue to recover the costs.
WQA attorneys have been told that the affected water providers, the City of Monterey Park, the Southern California Water Company and the San Gabriel Valley Water Company, will file similar lawsuits soon to recover cleanup costs.
Water supply problems have become critical for the providers in the South El Monte area because the spread of the contamination. When contamination forces the closure of local wells, water providers often have to purchase water imported from Northern California or the Colorado River at costs up to 10 times greater than well water.
Adding to the urgency of the South El Monte situation, underground contaminants in this area are moving rapidly toward Whittier Narrows where they could descend into the Central Basin threatening more wells and complicating the legal tangle surrounding the Superfund cleanup.