Water & Drought

Erin Brockovich weighs in on California’s removal of limits on chemical made famous in movie

Activist Erin Brockovich, right, talks with water treatment expert Robert W. Bowcock during a community forum on drinking water safety in Stockton in 2015. California officials just eliminated the drinking water standard for chrome 6, the chemical made famous in the 2000 movie about Brockovich.
Activist Erin Brockovich, right, talks with water treatment expert Robert W. Bowcock during a community forum on drinking water safety in Stockton in 2015. California officials just eliminated the drinking water standard for chrome 6, the chemical made famous in the 2000 movie about Brockovich. Stockton Record

Boxed in by a court ruling, California water regulators have agreed to to eliminate the ceiling on the amount of hexavalent chromium – the toxic chemical made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich” – that’s allowed in the state’s drinking water supplies.

The State Water Resources Control Board said Tuesday it removed the cap in response to a Sacramento judge’s ruling that said the regulation, adopted three years ago, was invalid. Spokesman Andrew DiLuccia said the board would begin work quickly on a new regulation, although that process generally takes 18 to 24 months.

The decision doesn’t mean there are no limits on hexavalent chromium, also known as chrome 6. The state’s less-stringent maximum ceiling for total chromium remains in place, including chrome 6 and a chemical called trivalent chromium. Trivalent chromium isn’t considered toxic.

Chrome 6, a heavy metal, can cause cancer with long-term exposure.

The regulation on chrome 6 was tossed after the judge said the Department of Public Health, which established the rule in 2014, didn’t consider whether it was economically feasible for local water agencies to comply.

Erin Brockovich, the Southern California environmental activist and subject of the acclaimed 2000 movie, said Wednesday she wasn’t surprised by the decision; she believes the health department “did a sloppy job” by ignoring the feasibility issue.

However, she said she believes the water board, which now has jurisdiction over the regulations, will set a new ceiling on chrome 6 that will stand up – and will be even stricter than the standard imposed in 2014. Corporations that fought the original regulation could wind up regretting their actions.

“It’s going to open a Pandora’s box for them,” Brockovich said in an interview.

In the meantime, however, environmentalists said they were dismayed that the rule has been tossed aside. Andria Ventura, toxic program manager for Oakland advocacy group Clean Water Action, called chrome 6 “a terrible toxin” and said the court decision “puts millions of Californians at risk.”

California became the first state in the nation in 2014 to issue a drinking water standard for chrome 6, setting a maximum concentration of 10 parts per billion.

The standard was aimed at a chemical that’s found throughout California’s water systems. Out of more than 7,000 wells tracked by the state since 2001, chrome 6 has turned up in tests more than 560 times in concentrations exceeding that standard, according to state water board records.

It isn’t known, however, how many customers have drunk water with chrome 6 in excess amounts. Contaminated wells could have been taken offline, or treated to reduce chrome 6 levels. In any event, the Legislature passed a law in 2015 giving local water agencies a five-year window to develop a plan to meet the standards.

Now the standards themselves have been sidelined, thanks to a successful court challenge by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association and the Solano County Taxpayers Association. They argued that the 10 parts per billion standard was too costly for many water systems.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Christopher Krueger agreed, ruling May 5 that state officials failed to consider economic feasibility in setting the rule. He directed the state to reconsider the regulations with cost in mind. He added that the state could decide to reinstate the 10 parts per billion regulation, but would have to show that it did so with economic feasibility in mind.

The manufacturers association said it was pleased that the standard has been removed.

“Especially some of the small water systems ... simply can’t absorb the cost to get to 10 parts per billion,” said Gino DiCaro, spokesman for the manufacturers.

He said the city of Dixon, for instance, estimated it would cost each ratepayer $420 a year to comply with the standard. Chrome 6 is found in Dixon’s water supply at levels of 20 parts per billion, he said.

DiCaro said the manufacturers plan to work with the state on establishing a revised regulation.

The state maximum for total chromium, including chrome 6 and the nontoxic trivalent chromium, remains in place at 50 parts per billion.

Chrome 6 was at the center of “Erin Brockovich,” the movie about a single mother in Southern California who fought Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over the chemical’s presence in the water supply in Hinkley, a community in San Bernardino County. Brockovich said chrome 6 was found in Hinkley’s groundwater in concentrations as high as 5,000 parts per billion.

Actress Julia Roberts won an Oscar portraying Brockovich, who has become a celebrated activist and environmental consultant to law firms. Two years ago, for instance, she helped lead protests after the city of Stockton introduced chloramines, a compound of chlorine and ammonia, to disinfect its municipal water.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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