Fill 'Er Up

Photo by Jack GouldAlready adept at recycling sewage into water for toilets and irrigation, the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) has a radical new plan for its 150,000 customers: convert a 3-mile-long plume of ground water contaminated with a toxic degreasing agent into drinking water, a source told the Weekly.

"Basically, they said they could turn this plume into perfectly safe drinking water," said a participant in an April 7 focus group commissioned by the IRWD. "The session took about an hour and a half. Easily, the first hour was just making sure we trusted them. They kept asking what they could do to prove this would work. The vast majority of the group didn't buy it."

The water in question emanates from the southwest part of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, where mechanics once washed and maintained Marine aircraft. The plume, which stretches through an aquifer beneath the Woodbridge neighborhood in Irvine, contains trichloroethylene (TCE)-a toxic chemical commonly used for degreasing and stripping paint.

Currently No. 15 on the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry's "Top 20 Hazardous Substances" priority list, TCE is a colorless or blue liquid with a sweet chloroform odor. It's known to cause kidney and liver damage, nausea, convulsions, impaired heart function, coma, and-when taken in large doses-death. Its cancer-causing potential remains unknown. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) maximum contaminant level in drinking water for TCE is 5 parts per billion (ppb).

"They showed the 15 of us overheads showing the plume, which looked like a sock, with TCE concentrations starting at 140 ppb and going to 5 ppb," said the participant, who requested anonymity. "They said they'd tap into the 5 ppb area and filter it using reverse osmosis to 0.5 ppb."

IRWD serves Irvine, Foothill Ranch, Newport Coast, and parts of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Orange, Portola Hills, Santa Ana and Tustin. IRWD community-relations director Joyce Wegner-Gwidt wouldn't comment on the district's plans for the contaminated water, except to say the final report would come out in the next few weeks.

The participant, who was paid $75 for taking part in the focus group, said the group's members knew all about their drinking water sources and IRWD's services-a prerequisite for inclusion in the focus group. The participant also said it was clear the group was being videotaped and that IRWD had commissioned many focus groups on this subject.

"They kept wanting to make sure we trusted them," said the participant. "We said that if the water was just used for irrigation, it would be fine. But they kept coming back to using it for drinking water, [and] they never gave any advantages for doing so. In the end, we asked why we should trust the technology and the people operating the technology."

According to the EPA publication "Water Recycling and Reuse," converting waste water into potable water is a growing practice. After sucking the sewage from the ground-a $5 million project the Navy Department will undertake at El Toro over the next two years-IRWD would filter the water and re-inject it into the aquifer. According to the EPA report, "While direct potable water reuse has been safely used in Nambia, Africa, it is not a generally accepted practice in the U.S."

Although IRWD has had notable successes with sewage reclamation for non-potable uses, they've also run into serious controversy-most notably with their plan to pump 900 million gallons of treated sewage per year into the saltwater marshes of Upper Newport Bay. That plan is mired in litigation and has since been scaled back to 100 million gallons per year-and then only in years showing significant rainfall.

But so far, IRWD has had no experience reclaiming TCE-contaminated water. That's one of the dark sides of base closures. Currently, 85 percent of Defense Department sites in the country have TCE leaks with contaminant levels greater than 5 ppb. On some of those sites, like the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, the contamination can be considerable.

At Seal Beach, years of washing down moon-rocket boosters in the 1960s and 1970s have created a massive plume underneath the station, with TCE contaminant levels of 163,000 ppb at one tested area. Base officials say that plume poses no threat to drinking water but add that they're still studying it.


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