Who poisoned the wells?

State officials are trying to find the source of toxins in the well water in a rural Chico neighborhood. In the meantime frustrated residents are wondering what to do.

Errol Hall’s back yard is like a small park. It stretches in a long rectangle, open to the sun, neatly contained with gravel and surrounded by immaculately pruned shrubs. The porch behind his well-kept home is cool and comfortable, shaded by trees that grow around the house. It’s his piece of paradise on the edge of Chico.

Hall is in his 60s, tan and trim from caring for his home. A retired Pacific Gas and Electric employee, he has lived here for 27 years with his wife JoAnn.

In these lush grounds, it’s easy to forget that the Halls’ home is plunked down in one of the more unlikely residential districts in Chico. The Skyway subdivision, located south of Hegan Lane and west of the Midway, is composed of just two streets, Skyway and Cessna lanes, straight strips of narrow pavement that quickly turn into dirt as they dead-end into almond orchards. Along them, modest, older homes like the Halls'—44 of them in all—are set on large lots among tall trees.

The tiny neighborhood is an anomaly, however, because it’s in the midst of numerous industrial properties that have settled on Chico’s southern periphery.

The Hegan Lane Business Park, with its commercial and manufacturing companies, and the huge Kinder Morgan petroleum tank farm are only a stone’s throw from the neighborhood. Along the Midway, which intersects with Hagen Lane, are a PG&E substation, a Shell diesel distributor and a cabinet manufacturer.

The area is a virtual minefield of potential industrial hazards. Fortunately, relatively few things have gone wrong over the years, though the mishaps that have occurred have been spectacular.

Last year, for example, a gasoline tanker truck trying to turn around exploded on the Midway. And, in 2001, a man was killed and another grievously injured while cleaning an empty gasoline storage tank at the Midway distributorship when a spark ignited ambient fumes.

And there have been environmental problems. During the 1980s residents of the area complained of noxious, burning fumes coming from the Duckback plant on Hegan Lane, which manufactured spas. Under fire, the company modified its practices and changed its business focus, eliminating the fumes. Residents went back to life as usual.

Unknown to them, at least twice in the past state officials had found contamination in the area’s groundwater. Residents were not informed of the contamination, and no further testing was done.

That was the situation until the summer of 2003, when the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) began testing groundwater around the Kinder Morgan tank farm for the presence of the additive MTBE, which had leaked from gas storage tanks throughout the state since being legally mandated in gasoline.

Leakage was indeed found, and at a public hearing in August residents of the Skyway neighborhood asked the water board to extend the testing to their wells.

To nobody’s surprise, MTBE was found in three wells. What shocked the neighborhood was another result: The substances trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, or TCE and PCE, showed up in 22 of the wells tested.

TCE and PCE are chlorinated solvents used for metal degreasing and dry cleaning and are on the EPA’s list of chemicals that cause cancer and reproductive toxicity. Companies commonly disposed of these chemicals into sinks or onto the ground until the late 1970s, when such practices became illegal. The RWQCB suspects the Hegan Lane area has been contaminated for at least 30 years.

“We thought we had some of the best water in Chico,” Hall now says, disappointment in his voice.

He sits on his back porch as he describes what has happened since the discovery. His hands are frequently in motion as he speaks, possibly to help along his colorful descriptions. JoAnn Hall listens and throws in sharp commentary that helps clarify her husband’s points.

The Halls are the kind of people who try to do their best at everything. The thought that they raised two children in a home with possibly contaminated water is frustrating and worrisome to them.

The Halls’ well tested clean, but this does not mean they have been free and clear all this time. Their neighbors’ well, located about four feet on the other side of the fence from the Halls’ property, tested at 8.8 parts per billion, well over the public-health goal of .08 ppb or less and one of the highest levels in the neighborhood. The two wells are of equal depth and take up water from the same level.

In fact, Don Mandel, of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), has told them that, while they might not have the contamination now and might not have it ever, they could just as easily have it tomorrow. The Halls are dealing with their water as though it were contaminated, drinking only bottled water and taking other precautions.

IS OUR WATER SAFE? Errol and JoAnn Hall have plenty of water, but they’re afraid to drink it, even though their well tested clean. Their neighbors’ nearby well had a TCE level well over safe limits, and state officials say the Halls’ well could become contaminated any day.

Photo By Tom Angel

When they learned of the contamination, the Halls assumed that Butte County would quickly come to the rescue and take care of the problem. They, along with their neighbors, are learning that this isn’t how it works.

Finding a solution to the contamination problem has instead been a process, a grinding, roadblock-filled challenge of a kind the Halls have never had to deal with before. They are wading through a quagmire of bureaucracy, aid programs and public meetings, having to learn as they go.

Through it all, one question has dominated all others: Where will the money come from either to clean up the toxins or bring clean water to the neighborhood? This is baffling to the Halls.

“We don’t give a damn where it comes from,” JoAnn Hall said. “We pay our taxes; now please solve this.”

Just a few miles to the northwest of the Skyway neighborhood, off Dayton Road, is Stanley Park, another rural subdivision with a history of contaminated groundwater. But when its residents discovered they had TCE and PCE in their wells, they had a much better experience with state agencies than the Skyway folks are having.

In fact, the state paid to bring city water to the neighborhood and even reimbursed residents who had purchased expensive filter systems.

The reason for this was simple enough: State monitors were able to figure out where the TCE and PCE had come from. They traced it back to Victor Industries, a manufacturing company that had operated for decades at the corner of East 20th Street and Mulberry, in Chico. The state was able to force the current owners of the company to pay for the new water line.

The Hegan Lane area, unfortunately, has an array of possible sources, many of which are no longer in business or have moved. The hunt to find the responsible party could take up to five years, says the DTSC’s Mandel.

That’s how the process works. When TCE and PCE were found in the city of Chico’s water supply, the operator, California Water Service Co., first installed filters where needed. Subsequently the dry cleaners and other industries that originally caused the contamination were forced to fund the remediation projects.

Perhaps naively, the Halls wonder why there are laws such as the 1977 Clean Water Act and Proposition 65, a supporting law passed in California 1986, if there is no money to fund the agencies responsible for enforcing them.

“Where’s the money?” Errol Hall asks. “It’s a cynical point of view, but if they can’t resolve anything, then what’s the point of having these agencies to begin with?”

So far, the DTSC has sent about 15 letters to various businesses asking for information about past and current chemical uses on their properties. Investigators have also asked residents to sift through memories of their past neighbors for any possible evidence.

There are many possibilities, but none have led anywhere. The former auto dismantling company, Junky George’s, which is now doing business under a different name and is one of five such businesses in the area, came up as a possible suspect. Comanche Creek, a waterway next to the junkyard, was tested and came up free of the chemicals, however.

Another suspect was an old airport behind the subdivision that used to send up crop dusters loaded with chemicals that were “dripping stuff all over the place,” as Hall describes it. Still, none of those chemicals was TCE or PCE.

Resident Roger Lewis says that, about 20 years ago, his children would ride their bikes by the tank farm and see them dumping water onto the ground after using it to clean out the gas tanks. Again, however, those chemicals were not TCE or PCE.

“We’ve heard all these stories but can’t nail anything down,” Errol Hall says. “It’s like we’re chasing ghosts.”

Jan Larsen and her husband have lived on Cessna Lane since 1975. From the outside their home is simple, painted a blue that has faded with age. Inside, the house seems surprisingly large, and the contrast between the wood floors and cabinets and the pastel rugs and decorations adds elegance. The pool out back looks well used by the Larsens’ children, with several colorful plastic “floaties” drifting across the surface.

Larsen, a junior-high-school teacher, is a healthy-looking woman in her 40s with jet-black hair that springs out of its pony tail. She’s used to speaking up in crisis situations and led the neighborhood during the Duckback confrontation. Her husband Terry, mustached and tan, looks on calmly while his energetic wife does most of the talking.

Since finding out their well was contaminated, the Larsens have been trying to get back to life as normal. For them this has meant installing a $2,000 filter system.

Wells that tested above state and federal standards for TCE.

The DTSC has offered bottled water, but the Larsens saw it as only a Band-Aid on the real problem. They show a notice issued to them from the Butte County Department of Environmental Health that recommends those with affected wells should drink bottled water, shower and cook in well-ventilated areas and refrain from using the clothes washer, unless it is in the basement. The chemicals volatize in the heat and can be breathed in, in addition to being absorbed through the skin.

The Larsens could barely afford the filter system, but there was simply no question about having it installed.

“You’ve seen the list of what we can’t do. How can they expect us to continue living without a filter system?”

The filtering units, two large blue cylinders that stand upright next to wells, take the TCE and PCE out of the water. The drawbacks are that they need to be maintained in order to work properly and after 10 years need to be replaced.

The Larsens’ well tested at 4.6 ppb of TCE, which is below the 5 ppb that is the maximum allowable level in public wells. The public-health goal level is set at .08 ppb. Having two separate levels has confused the Larsens about their level of risk and how cautious they should be.

Even though they have no reported toxins in their well, the Halls have had trouble convincing themselves and others that their water is OK. When their children, now in their 40s, come to visit, they plan their trips so that they don’t have to shower while at their parents’ home. JoAnn Hall looks sour for a moment as she describes this but says she doesn’t blame her children.

“Do you think we want our family here with that? No,” she explains.

The residents are unsure about what the risks associated with TCE and PCE really are, beyond knowing that they’re not good. The information they get is contradictory, Errol Hall says.

At a public meeting, “a scientist stood up and said, ‘You can drink it, you can pour it all over your body and be fine. We’ve done tests on rats. Don’t worry, the concentration is no problem,’ “ Hall explains. “Why then are they setting these levels and giving recommendations that we should do something about it?”

The DTSC’s Mandel clarifies the figures. At .08 ppb, the cancer risk is one more case per 1 million people, he explains.

“About one-third of the population will get cancer anyway,” Mandel said. “But it’s not something you want people to volunteer for.”

There hasn’t been a rash of cancer cases or anything to suggest that TCE has compromised the health of anyone in the neighborhood.

A family with 18 ppb TCE in their well, the highest concentration in the neighborhood, was so unnerved they went to Oroville to have their blood tested. Doctors did not find anything abnormal.

Errol Hall describes the problem as a dark cloud over the neighborhood. It’s something that might make visitors hesitate when offered a glass or water or buyers avoid coming to the area to look for homes.

“The stigma is here.”

In the meantime, residents of the neighborhood are watching the state investigation proceed and waiting for a responsible party to emerge. Events are discussed in backyard gatherings, and information is spread via e-mail and flyers. Less then a year has gone by, and patience with the workings of the system hasn’t run out yet.

Larsen, however, is uneasy about putting all her trust in the state agencies, given what has happened in the past.

The RWQCB has known about contamination in the area since 1983, when it received a report from Knudsen & Sons juice company, located on nearby Speedway Avenue, that it had discovered TCE in its wells. The plant installed a state-of-the-art filtering system, solving the problem for itself, but the water board did nothing to alert people in the area about possible contamination.

Somehow the report on this was lost, and officials at the RWQCB say no one remembers anything about the problem.

HOW’S THE WATER NOW? In early June, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control retested wells along Cessna and Skyway lanes to discover if results were different in summer months than when first tested last November. Results are still pending. Shown here are DTSC technicians Emmanuel Mensah, left, and Frank Lopez.

Photo By Mandy Trilck

Officials at the Butte County Environmental Health Department became aware of the problem again in 1993, when water was being tested during a well permitting process. They decided not to notify residents.

Laws have since changed about the notification process to prevent these kinds of oversights, but this is little consolation for Larsen.

“This wasn’t one of those things where you can just say, ‘Sorry,'” she complains. “We’re just being good citizens and good people, and someone out there is contaminating the water. You hope public agents are out to protect you, but they failed us when they didn’t give notification about what was happening.”

It makes Larsen sad to think that she could have known about the contamination 10, maybe 20 years earlier and saved having her kids grow up with it in their water.

Ironically, the Larsens have had their well tested several times over the years, but only for typical problems in residential wells such as nitrates and sewage bacteria.

Given the history of TCE and PCE in the area, as well as the amount of industry that surrounds the neighborhood, it’s surprising that no one recommended testing sooner.

Even if they had been alerted, the tests are expensive. The residents were lucky, when the state tested for MTBE at Kinder Morgan, to be able to get their wells tested as part of the deal.

The Larsens are trying to work with the system, but if they end up having to pay for both their filter and city water, they will fight.

The source of the contamination may never be found. Local environmental agencies’ neglect of the neighborhood seems clear to its residents, and the Larsens are determined to hold them responsible if necessary.

“The agencies that are supposed to be protecting us are pleading ignorance,” Larsen argues. “That’s not how it’s going to be, even if it means taking legal action against the people who aren’t doing their job.”

Don Dunbar, who has lived on Skyway Lane with his family since 1987, isn’t at first an obvious choice for a community leader. He is a quiet, serious man whose approach to the groundwater problem is more subdued then the Larsens’ or the Halls'.

He’s no less active than they are, however. He worked with Jan Larsen in the Duckback case and was one of the first homeowners on the street to get involved with the agencies when the well tests came back. Karen Clementsen, the lead RWQCB official on the case, asked him to act as the neighborhood’s spokesman.

Both Clementsen and Mandel have been helpful and responsive, he says. He can’t say the same for the agencies they work for, however.

In a letter to Assemblyman Rick Keene sent in April, he doesn’t mince words: “I am writing to you because I believe [our problem] involves the failure of two separate agencies to follow their mandate, and possibly law.”

Dunbar believes that the situation won’t be resolved until DTSC takes the reins from the RWQCB, currently the lead agency in the case.

No one is able to give a clear answer as to why the DTSC wasn’t made lead agency in the first place. DTSC handles the other TCE and PCE plumes in Chico, and the RWQCB is responsible for petroleum related contamination such as MTBE.

Clementsen said that it is an unusual situation but necessary because of funding problems.

Dunbar considers DTSC’s work in the case so far as more valuable. The agency is working on remediation activities that directly affect residents, he explains. It has provided bottled water to affected homes, sent out letters to get information for the investigation and recently retested wells on Skyway and Cessna.

The RWQCB have been testing wells along Hegan Lane looking to see if other homes might be affected, in addition to figuring out the extent of the plume. It was earlier involved with remediation activities as well but then backed away from them.

POINT WOMAN Karen Clementsen, with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, is the lead official working on the Skyway neighborhood pollution problems. She’s shown here at a recent meeting dealing with the Humboldt Road Burn Dump.

Photo By Tom Angel

Clementsen tried looking for funds to help the residents get city water. She put in a request to the state board’s Cleanup and Abatement Account for funding, but the money had been allocated to other projects. She then looked for low-interest loans but later told residents that the DTSC was in charge of finding a solution.

This shuffling of responsibilities is confusing to the residents.

“We threw all of our weight behind [the RWQCB], assuming that they were going to resolve this issue. Then it turns out their responsibility is not to resolve this issue,” Errol Hall says.

The Halls are with Dunbar in thinking the RWQCB should no longer be the lead agency.

“That agency has the obligation to do detection but doesn’t seem to have the obligation to do anything about it,” JoAnn Hall says.

When speaking about the RWQCB, Errol Hall frequently refers to the agency as “she,” meaning Clementsen. He corrects himself and makes it clear that he not frustrated with Clementsen, but rather with the bureaucracy she works under.

What the Halls figure is that the RWQCB’s involvement may stem from a struggle for funding. Its budget year begins on July 1, whereas DTSC’s begins on Aug. 1.

“It puts you in a mind that [the RWQCB] wants to maintain themselves as lead agency just long enough to get their money,” Hall says.

That’s not the case, Clementsen says, but both she and Mandel acknowledge there is a good chance the DTSC will become lead agency this summer.

Dunbar thinks that once that happens a solution will be found quickly.

“If you look at [DTSC’s] mission statement, it clear they are the agency that deals with fixing the problem,” Dunbar says.

The Halls are more skeptical about the switch and wish there was a way for the neighborhood residents to avoid having to deal with state agencies altogether.

“These agencies are supposed to resolve these problems,” Hall said. “Instead they have built hierarchies and keep hiring more and more people. When it comes down to paying for things like this, guess what? There’s no money,” Errol Hall insists.

“They should send us one person and start spending all their money on the remedy, not on bureaucracy.”

In front of the Halls’ house are several empty blue plastic containers. Every two weeks a water delivery service comes by to replenish the couple’s supply of bottled water, typically five 5-gallon jugs.

JoAnn Hall smiles as she describes how there was some confusion at first over how much water they needed.

“I never realized how much water we used until now,” she says.

The Halls say they can get by with the bottled water for now but would eventually like to sell their house and find a smaller property that requires less maintenance. They don’t want to be stuck with something they can’t handle when they’re older.

Until the contamination issue is resolved, however, it will be difficult for them to get full value for their house. City water is the only solution that will likely satisfy potential buyers.

To run pressure mains into the subdivision will cost about $350,000. This expense, shared among the residents, will cost each household close to $10,000. And if residents want to continue to use their wells for irrigation, they will have to spend an additional $2,000 for a valve that switches between systems.

Many will not be able to afford the low-interest loans the DTSC says is the best it can get for the subdivision.

Residents are on the fence about whether to go or stay, pay or fight. For the time being they are trying to live their lives as normally as possible.

“There’s mixed emotions about what’s going on," Errol Hall says. "Most of the people here would never leave their property. But they also want safe drinking water."