Should OC’s North Basin be declared a Superfund Site?




Scott Pruitt and the EPA are reviewing whether to add the Orange County North Basin to their ‘national priority listing’ – aka, the ‘superfund’ sites list- a matter that’s drawn shockingly little attention from some local players, even if it connects to steamy tales about Pruitt’s shenanigans

Public comments on the proposed listing closed Friday evening, May 18.  So far…there are some voices in this discussion that are frighteningly silent.

The matter seems important.  According to the Orange County Water District (OCWD), 75% of the water supply for 22 cities and 2.5 million residents comes from this groundwater basin.  And at least four or five of the wells have been rendered unusable recently as a result of ‘industrial contamination.’  OCWD appears to have put out a call to the EPA some years ago.  Every mayor, administrator, and legislator who deemed this worth chiming in on expressed support for OCWD’s effort to declare the site a ‘superfund’ site.  Their brief, 1-2 page form letters generally read as follows:

  • The City of [Garden Grove, Yorba Linda, Fullerton, Placentia, Laguna Woods, Tustin, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, etc.] currently draws most of its water supply from the Orange County Groundwater Basin. This supply is critically important to our community. The water’s quality, volume, and affordable cost represent much more than a simple commodity; our water supply constitutes a central element of the community itself.
  • As your agency knows, it is critically important to protect this water resource from legacy industrial contamination in the North Basin.  So please list it!

Comments from private individuals run a gamut from residents concurring with these officials, to others calling for unrelated efforts – my favorites of these are a call to ban importing rare earths from China (because they caused tragedies in….Zaire? A country that hasn’t even used that name for more than 20 years?), and the commentator who claimed “President Tiny Hands deserves a spot on the ‘national priorities list'”.    I’d treat these as ‘neutral.’

Against all this, after reviewing every comment submitted so far, I found only three commenters opposed to the proposal to list the site as a superfund site:

  • The Orange County Business Council (OCBC) and the North Orange County Chamber – both of which appear to believe that additional time is needed, that the site shouldn’t be listed until after feasibility studies are complete (in 2020-2021), and that after a decade of litigation between the  Orange County Water District and local businesses/property owners, there’s just too much to be done before considering a listing as a superfund site.
  • Dr. Denise Stanley, the only individual among the commentators so far who questioned the listing (and in her case, she merely seems to want a benefit-cost analysis performed first).

OCWD has a pretty harsh answer for OCBC: “Yeah, a bunch of your members caused this problem, have known about it in detail for pretty much forever, and a bunch went out of business long ago to leave others to fix this mess.  That’s why we need a superfund listing.”

This is just a survey of the commentary: not the lengthy background, the involved litigation, or the stakes: I honestly cannot say that the loss of four or five of some 60 wells reflects a threat to the water supply.  That’s why we hire water administrators, and hope they’re good enough at their jobs to prevent such a threat.

However, there are some glaring omissions among the commentators: where are the Orange County supervisors, especially Nelson, in whose district this lies?  Don’t they realize that a possible superfund listing would have broad repercussions for everyone in that region?  Are they too busy to chime in publicly with the one authority that actually counts?

Unless he’s too busy retiring, one would expect Ed Royce‘s office to chime in (Lowenthal did, but other congress members have steered clear for now.)  If over a decades’ worth of litigation took place about businesses in his district, why isn’t Royce offering his insight?  Or his staffers?  Were they all sleeping at the wheel?  Or is this decision about the listing a ‘silly triviality’ – and there are higher priorities than safe drinking water for the residents of Fullerton, Anaheim, Placentia (and the other 15 or so cities that chimed in)?

Indeed, where are any of the candidates for office in the 39th District, ground central in the dispute?  Cisneros?  Young Kim?  Huff?  Jammal?  Thorburn?  Again, Nelson?  For those who are holding an office, if they’ve done nothing on this matter for decades, what good have they done?  And for those seeking office, where is their public statement in the one forum where public statements are not only invited, but required as part of the regulatory process?

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