Whittier water- treatment plant a success
By Michelle Rester
Saturday, March 01, 2003

BALDWIN PARK -- They look like 30-foot green mayonnaise jars circling a round, navy blue platform.

But instead of containing the fattening, white condiment, the tanks are removing a carcinogen known as perchlorate from the area's groundwater.

The "jars' are one of three cleanup processes at the La Puente Valley County Water Treatment Plant in Baldwin Park a first of its kind in the nation.

The facility is marking its two- year anniversary as the first Superfund site to successfully remove several pollutants from local groundwater and pump the treated water directly to residents.

"The La Puente project is pretty special,' said Wayne Praskins, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency project manager. "We talk with EPA people throughout the country that are just discovering perchlorate contamination and we tell them what we've done with the La Puente project. It's probably the first to treat (perchlorate-contaminated water) and to serve it directly to people.'

The treatment plant is cleaning water from the La Puente Valley County Water District, which lost all of its three wells due to contamination. It's included in one of five federal Superfund sites in the San Gabriel Basin.

Two similar projects in the Azusa/Baldwin Park Superfund site are under construction and will each treat about three times the water an estimated 7,800 gallons a minute, officials said.

Area water officials say the La Puente plant the 79-year-old water district's headquarters are in La Puente started as a pilot project. When planning began, not only was there no technology to remove NDMA, a component of rocket fuel, but there was no funding and no other facilities to emulate.

After a year of testing, public hearings and workshops with experts, various treatment proposals were submitted and funding was granted from the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority, the Main San Gabriel Basin Water Master and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, said Michael Berlien, general manager of the La Puente Valley County Water District.

Water agencies have since sued companies that EPA identified as responsible for the contamination for reimbursement. Officials say they agree the plant is now a success, especially because Superfund law doesn't mandate the treated water be saved for drinking water.

"That was the beauty and also the importance of trying to get that agreement' with the parties responsible for the contamination, said Grace Burgess, executive director of the Water Quality Authority. "We wanted to get the polluters to clean it up, but we were saying, just don't dump it after you clean it. Please ... treat it to the purest form and deliver it to our customers.'

Another year went by before the state Health Department agreed to issue necessary permits, allowing the treatment plan to begin serving newly cleaned water in March 2001, to residents in eastern La Puente and portions of Industry.

It also allowed the water district to get rid of its 30-percent rate hike initiated when all of its wells were shut down and officials were forced to buy water from neighboring districts to serve to customers, Berlien said.

Treatment plants like La Puente's also are needed as barriers to keep the contaminated groundwater from spreading. It has already moved through the San Gabriel Basin into the Whittier Narrows area, threatening another major water basin.

The plume of tainted water in the San Gabriel Basin is 9 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and generally follows the path of the San Gabriel River which is where early water- company owners preferred to drill wells, said Berlien.

Industrial solvents were first found in the San Gabriel Valley's groundwater in 1979, but it wasn't until 1992 that air strippers were built to treat some of the shuttered wells peppered throughout the valley, officials said.

Water officials say the La Puente Valley plant is expected to be used as a model for future cleanup plans.

-- Michelle Rester can be reached at (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2127, or by e-mail at michelle.rester@sgvn.com .