The Meaning of Hahamongna

The original settlers of the region were sometimes called the Hahamongna Indians. The word means "Flowing Waters, Fruitful Valley" in the native Tongva language.

Hahamongna News

Title:

City files claim in closure of wells

Subtitle:

NASA will conduct public hearings.

Date:

2004-01-26

Author:

Gary Scott and Lisa Faught , Staff Writers

Publication:

Pasadena Star News

Content:

The city of Pasadena has filed a $2 million claim against NASA and the U.S. Army to recoup the costs of closing nine wells contaminated by perchlorate from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

According to the claim, the loss of groundwater from those wells has forced Pasadena Water & Power to buy more expensive water from other sources and run its seven remaining wells at full tilt to meet customer demands.

The claim was filed last week under the Federal Tort Claims Act and alleges both agencies are negligent for failing to clean up the pollution.

"The longer we go without having the issue resolved and the groundwater restored, the larger the cost to run the system,' said Phyllis Currie, general manager of Pasadena Water & Power.

City officials say they hope to avoid a court battle but made the claim to ensure they retain their right to sue if negotiations with NASA fail, and to hasten cleanup of the groundwater.

"The council has done everything it can do to convey its sense of urgency on this matter,' said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard.

NASA officials readily admit the pollution was caused by rocket testing at JPL in the 1940s and 1950s when the site was being used by the Army Air Corp. The facility was turned over to NASA in 1961.

At high levels, perchlorate can interfere with thyroid function, potentially affecting pregnant women and their developing fetuses.

The federal government listed JPL as a Superfund site in 1992, requiring NASA to identify the scope of the pollution and come up with plan to clean it.

NASA officials now think they know how to contain and treat the contamination, and will hold public hearings next week to begin discussing the plan.

"We intend to proceed with the best system that will produce the best results,' said Steven Slaten, manager of the cleanup project for NASA. He said the cleanup will take years, if not decades, and cost tens of millions of dollars.

Pasadena first detected unsafe levels of perchlorate in 1997 in several wells in the Monk Hill basin, which runs underneath Hahamongna Watershed Park and JPL. The toxic plume has slowly migrated in a southeasterly direction, causing other wells to close.

The last five wells were shut down in January 2002 after the state Department of Health Services lowered its safety standard for perchlorate to four parts per billion from 18 parts per billion.

When the Army first contracted with Caltech to study jet propulsion systems at JPL in the 1940s, the standard practice was to pour toxic chemicals down the drain. The chemicals would collect in pits and seep slowly into the soil. The standards for waste management are more stringent now, but the damage was already done.

Initial tests found high levels of harmful volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in the soil and groundwater around JPL. As the technology for detecting contamination improved, scientists found high levels of another chemical, perchlorate, which they did not at first know how to treat.

The pollution affecting Pasadena is most concentrated directly beneath JPL, with levels reaching 13,300 parts per billion at their highest. The latest tests, after months of cleanup under a pilot study, show lower concentrations of 5,200 parts.

NASA will first work to contain and treat the pollution at JPL, Slaten said. If successful, the project will serve as a model for cleaning the wells in Pasadena.

The treatment plan is a three- step process: First, contaminated water is passed through a carbon filter, similar to a home drinking-water purifier, to remove any volatile organic compounds. Then the water is piped into a reactor where microbes, activated by a corn syrup mixture, will essentially eat and destroy the perchlorate. Finally, the water flows through one more filter before it is injected back into the ground.

Over time, the process eventually will flush out the chemical plume to a level below the four parts per billion standard, Slaten said.

Construction on the new water plant is scheduled to start in early February, with the water treatment up and running by mid-summer.

The perchlorate plume has also spread into two water wells operated by Lincoln Avenue Water Company, but the levels are low enough to keep the wells running, said Bob Hayward, general manager of the water company.

Although the project to treat the polluted water wells throughout Pasadena and Altadena is not yet scheduled, he said the cleanup of the "hot spot' at JPL will curtail further contamination.

"The sooner you get started, the sooner the plume stops spreading,' Hayward said.

A continuing challenge in the cleanup effort are the fluctuating state and federal guidelines for setting safe levels for perchlorate in drinking water.

At present, perchlorate can be detected at one part per billion, which is equivalent to a teaspoon of contaminant in an Olympic-sized pool. That has led to water-well closures all over Southern California, including in the San Gabriel Valley.

Safety standards have yet to be finalized and are tied up in controversy, potentially delaying cleanup statewide, said Tim Brick, Pasadena board member for the Metropolitan Water District.

"It muddies the whole issue and makes it difficult for everyone involved. How do you know what level to clean the water to?' Brick said.

The state Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment was expected to come up with a public health goal by Jan. 1, 2003, but the decision was delayed after the aerospace industry sued the office over its study methods, said Allan Hirsch, spokesman for the agency.

The office now has 60 days to come up with a public health goal, at which point the state Department of Health Services must set a maximum contaminant level the final regulatory standard.

"I'm not sure we've ever dealt with a chemical where we know everything we would like to know before determining what is a safe level and what is not,' Hirsch said.

"There's always some gaps in scientific knowledge, and that is the case with this chemical as well.'

Some Washington lawmakers want to exempt the military from liability for perchlorate contamination. A bill was introduced last year but failed to garner support in the U.S. Senate.

"It's probably not the last we've seen of this bad idea, but hopefully if it comes back we can defeat it again,' said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena.

NASA will hold public meetings on the contamination issue Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Eliot Middle School, 2184 N. Lake Ave., Altadena, as well as Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at John Muir High School, 1905 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena.

Gary Scott can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4458, or by e-mail at gary.scott@sgvn.com. Lisa Faught can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4496, or by e-mail at lisa.faught@sgvn.com.