Posts Tagged ‘Superfund’

Get while it’s hot. Chip’s latest book is a collection of his top narrative and investigative articles. May we present “The Vicodin Thieves: Biopsying L.A.’s Grifters, Gloryhounds and Goliaths” More new projects on the way.

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

In this stories collection 23-years-in-the-making, you’ll find 29 articles on a sumptuous basket of subjects originally published in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Los Angeles Daily News, L.A. Weekly and other publications. Hold on for the unexpected and the maddening, the heartbreaking and the mystifying. The feature, investigative and opinion pieces here by Chip Jacobs range from Tommy Koulax’s litigious, chili-cheese hamburger empire, Lockheed’s super-secret Skunk Works defense plant and the deadly, 1913-accident during construction of Pasadena’s famous Colorado Street Bridge, to the hazy, first casualty of Operation Desert Storm, chromium-6 pollution outrages, violent bus drivers and profiles of Southern California political heavyweights Richard Riordan, Danny Bakewell and Richard Alatorre, among others. Vicodon Thieves, which draws its name from a Los Angeles Times feature about pharmaceutical burglars who prey on medicine cabinets at real estate open houses, also includes expanded articles about a high-flying, smog-emissions broker who fell in with shadowy, ex-CIA and military-intelligence operatives bent to “repatriate” forgotten U.S. government aid from around the globe, and the unsolved, execution-style murder of one of suburbia’s most electrifying young mayors blocks from his childhood home. Two new stories grace this compendium, as well. One explores the prodigal life of an early, Universal Pictures director (the author’s great uncle, Nat Ross) gunned down in 1941 by a sociopathic drifter, who’d die in the San Quentin Gas Chamber for his crime. A pair of photographs of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., likely captured hours before he was assassinated in the kitchen of Los Angeles’ old Ambassador Hotel, inspires another original narrative. Few outside of the most ardent of Kennedyphiles probably realize how close RFK came to not being there the night America’s trajectory changed forever, or the cursed, Hollywood enmeshment to his final days. Published by Rare Bird Books  /  /  Barnes & Noble

My latest with the L.A. Times: “Chromium 6 Suspected at Disney”

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Air conditioning system in Burbank may be a source of water contamination.

August 22, 2012


Federal and state regulators are investigating whether a vintage air conditioning system at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank played a role in contaminating groundwater with chromium 6, a cancer-causing heavy metal widely used in aerospace manufacturing and other industries.

A consultant hired by the Environmental Protection Agency recently identified the Disney property among a list of facilities being “investigated as potential sources of chromium contamination in groundwater,” according to an April 2012 report recently posted on the agency’s website.

Authorities have long been aware of chromium 6 contamination in San Fernando Valley groundwater and have already identified a number of companies responsible for contamination, including aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. Lockheed paid $60 million to settle claims with roughly 1,300 residents in 1996 alleging that exposure to chromium 6 and other toxins at its former aircraft manufacturing plant left them with cancer and other maladies.

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The Disney site has recently come under scrutiny by state and federal officials as part of a broader investigation into groundwater contamination, records show. Citing community concerns about contamination, the California Department of Public Health in 2010 tested soil in a nearby park that historically had received discharges of water from Disney’s cooling system and found Chromium 6.

The levels were not deemed to be a threat to public health. Even so, the EPA sent a letter to Walt Disney Co.and its president, Robert Iger, last year, asking them to “describe in detail and in narrative fashion, the cooling system and cooling towers used at the facility, and changes to the cooling systems and cooling towers since the beginning of Disney operations at the facility.”

The Disney headquarters was among several locations being investigated as a potential source of contamination, in part because it used cooling towers, a known source of chromium 6 contamination at other sites, Lisa Hanusiak, remedial project manager for EPA Region 9, said in an interview this week. Hanusiak also cited the 2010 health department’s soil tests.

“We’re trying to determine the source of chromium — why is it there?” Hanusiak said. “We had these soil samples downgrade, so that led us to think, What was going on at facilities upgrade?”

Disney has denied using chromium compounds in its air conditioning system or cooling towers. The company said in a detailed response to the EPA on May 17, 2011, that it stored a small amount of chromium-based material used to clean equipment in film processing and that the hazardous waste was properly disposed of through the city of Burbank. Disney said tests of the wastewater discharge showed low levels of chromium that were “well within the effluent limitations allowed by the city of Burbank.”

According to Disney’s response to regulators, the company’s original cooling system dates to 1938 and used groundwater pumped from wells to pre-cool and pre-heat buildings on the site, at one point circulating up to 1.7 million gallons of water a day. The wastewater was discharged into settling basins and then to the Los Angeles River, as well as to Burbank’s storm system. In 1993, Disney replaced the system with cooling towers that relied on water supplied by the city of Burbank, the company told regulators.

Disney officials on Wednesday declined to comment beyond their statements in the documents.

The EPA has been working with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to assess the contamination threat. In an Oct. 18, 2010, letter to Iger, posted on the EPA’s website, the board wrote that it was investigating the company’s water discharges, and cited a chemical questionnaire that indicated chromium 6 was “used and stored at (Disney’s) 500 South Buena Vista facility.”

The board also said Disney’s consultants nearly two decades earlier had failed to supply specific water-quality data the board had requested to “evaluate the chromium contents of the discharge waters or the water in the onsite groundwater wells.” The board ordered the company to submit a plan for testing soil and groundwater on the site.

“The cooling system wastewater discharge, containing aqueous chromate salts, constitutes a significant potential threat to the groundwater quality of the regional aquifer in the San Fernando Valley,” Sam Unger, the board’s executive officer, said in the letter to Iger.

The EPA announced in February it would dig 30 new chromium 6 monitoring wells throughout the Glendale-Burbank area to gauge the extent of contamination and to determine which companies are responsible.

The wells included two locations east and west of the Disney property, one at the 11-acre area in Griffith Park known as Pollywog, where the health department conducted soil tests.

Chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, has many uses, including preventing corrosion of pipes in air conditioning systems and eliminating microbes in cooling towers.

According to a report last year byURS Corp., a consulting firm hired by Disney, chromium 6 was “detected in 97 of 139 soil samples,” though most readings were below government health standards for industrial land use. Groundwater samples showed chromium 6 levels were below state standards. URS said that chromium 6 is a “naturally occurring metal in this area.”

The city of Burbank received complaints from neighboring residents about potential chrome 6 contamination from the Disney site in 2006. The neighbors subsequently filed lawsuits in 2009 and 2010 alleging Disney dumped chromium 6 contaminated wastewater into settling ponds near the Los Angeles River.

Disney called the allegations meritless and cited the results of the California Department of Public Health study that found there was no threat to public health from the discharges. The department did note “conflicting information as to Disney’s past use of chromium 6 in cooling water,” according to a Feb. 18, 2010, letter from its director, Mark Horton.

The suits were dismissed.

Chromium 6 captured wide public attention in 2000 with the release of the Academy Award-winning movie “Erin Brockovich,” about residents sickened by a Pacific Gas & Electric plant in the Mojave Desert city of Hinkley. PG&E had used chromium 6 as an anti-rusting agent to prevent corrosion in cooling towers, and has paid more than $600 million to settle lawsuits.

A Times series in 2000 revealed widespread chromium 6 pollution in the aquifers of Glendale, Burbank and North Hollywood. Federal officials detected the chemical in 30 of 80 eastern San Fernando Valley groundwater monitoring sites.

The presence of carcinogenic material in those wells is especially perilous because all three cities pumped some of their drinking water from the aquifer, and until recently there was no proven method to safely remove chromium 6 from drinking water. Burbank officials met state health standards by diluting the tainted water with cleaner water from other sources. Glendale dumped much of what it couldn’t use into the Los Angeles River.

Los Angeles Times link

Holiday Season first annual point – counterpoint babble

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

* POINT: The Ontario International Airport is worse than Los Angeles City Hall’s red-haired stepchild. It’s more akin to the deserted, forlorn cousin promised housing in a garden shed. Glad folks are just learning this.

- From the L.A. Times: “After three decades of steady growth and earning a Forbes magazine nod as one of the nation’s top “alternative airports,” Ontario International is now among the fastest-declining midsize airports in the country. A pillar of pride for the Inland Empire, which rode the housing boom to a colossal bust, the sprawling facility owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles lost a third of its 7.2 million annual passengers between 2007 and 2010. The airport is on track to lose an additional 200,000 this year — setting it back to 1987 levels, when Ronald Reagan was president and the Dow was below 3,000. Nationally, only Cincinnati is shedding travelers at a faster pace …”

* COUNTER-POINT: (A.K.A. first to the punch): my piece on this subject from way back when.

- “Thirty-six years ago, during the money-loathing Summer of Love, Los Angeles got control of the air at a bead-like price. For $1.2-million and future concessions, the city bought a postage-stamp airport in the dusty flatlands of the Inland Empire in the era before the subdivisions and chain-malls invaded. Though dry in detail, if not colonial in result, the 1967-transaction provided each side with something immediately useful. Los Angeles International Airport secured a backup landing strip for those nights coastal fog (or smog) socked in its runways. Ontario inherited a strapping big-city patriarch that could lure commercial jetliners to the scruffy, San Bernardino County outpost while chasing federal dollars to expand it. Ontario’s airfield was barely more than parched earth and booster dreams when L.A. came along. It had taken World War II training needs to convert the dirt runways there to concrete, and defense contractors after that to bulk up the facilities. The first passenger terminal, one converted from a hybrid chapel-theater-canteen, didn’t rise until the 1960s. It was bush league at best …”

* POINT: The cities of Glendale, Burbank and northwest Los Angeles have tried their level best to keep hexavalent chromium (chrome-six, “The Erin Brockovich chemical) under state standards by either diluting the tainted fluid with fresh suppies, shutting off compromised acquifers or just dumping the stuff into the Los Angeles River. Research in Glendale, meantime, is underway to figure out how to remove the industrial contaminant point blank. This is an enormous issue where the Cold War, environmental science, Superfund policies and municipal water management weave in and out of the water table pocked by decades of defense manufacturing (mainly Lockheed), chrome plating and other industrial work involving heavy metals. You just wouldn’t know it’s a crisis from the scant media coverage. Consider this short piece from the L.A. Times:

- “Although the City Council last week approved spending an additional $400,000 to continue research at two testing facilities — just two months after the council gave the green light to spend $550,000 in grant and state funding on more research — some city officials are getting antsy …”

* COUNTERPOINT: My article that launched a series and community hullaballoo about local chrome-six water contamination after I worked with the L.A. Times in the year-2000 exposing the problem. Sometimes, it seems like we all have dementia when it comes to remembering that there’s an unusually pernicious toxin infesting our water. Maybe it was the recession or terrorism that spurred us kick this can down the road? Or, environmental fatigue? Couldn’t be politics (insert laugh track) or the sheer magnitude of the issue.


Save the EPA from Republican bomb-throwers with a Smogtown Op-Ed in the NY Times, and other green news

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

* A snippet from my editorial in today’s New York Times “Room for Debate” online roudtable about whether Republican presidential candidates calling for the EPA’s dissolution have a point or are just giving red-meat to a fatigued, job-hungry people:

” … In national politics, California may be seen as Exhibit A for over-regulating the environment. But anyone making that argument must ignore what the state was like before the Environmental Protection Agency. Its rules and enforcement have made California a livable, thriving state. Now, if you’re a Republican presidential candidate irate about America’s wheezy economy, it’s easy to go Red Queen and call for guillotining the E.P.A. Scapegoating regulators as job-killing obstructionists can pump up the faithful, but it doesn’t reflect well on America’s environmental maturity. None of the White House hopefuls mention the expected $2 trillion in health and environmental benefits from the Clean Air Act by 2020. Few of the greenhouse skeptics, in fact, even broach fresh air at all, perhaps because they hail from states where it was never toxic …”

Read our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, and you’ll see just how instrumental California’s smog epidemic was in galvanizing an environmental ethos that led to creation of the EPA itself. The effects of those untamed, brown-exhaust-blowing tailpipes spawned a bureaucracy.

And now for something completely greener, we think.

* San Joaquin Valley toxic dump agrees to spend $1 million to better manage hazardous waste. From the L.A. Times:

“A toxic waste dump near a San Joaquin Valley community plagued by birth defects has agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and spend $600,000 on laboratory upgrades needed to properly manage hazardous materials at the facility, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday. The penalties were part of a consent decree that capped an 18-month investigation by the EPA and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control into the Chemical Waste Management landfill about 3 1/2 miles southwest of Kettleman City, a community of 1,500 mostly low-income Latino farmworkers. Company records revealed at least 18 instances over the last six years in which toxic waste had to be excavated from the landfill after it was learned that the laboratory had mistakenly concluded the material met treatment standards, EPA officials said …”

* The California-led greenhosue gas cap-and-trade was supposed to be a shiney achievement of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration. It’s turned out to be something much more complicated, divisive and legally perilious than anyone believed. Still, the state Air Resources Board remains behind it through the court challenges and liberal backlash. Having covered the Anne Sholtz caper with the smog cap and trade here in Southern California, color me skeptical about how much a green market will achieve. Then again, this is the West Coast where we build the future day by day. From the L.A. Times:

“The California Air Resources Board voted to reaffirm its cap-and-trade plan Wednesday, a decision that puts the nation’s first-ever state carbon trading program back on track, for now. The on-again, off-again rules have been years in the making and are meant to complement AB 32, California’s landmark climate change law that mandates a reduction in carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. The air board adopted a preliminary carbon trading plan in late 2008 but was sued by environmental justice groups in 2009. A San Francisco judge in March ordered the air board to more comprehensively analyze alternatives to the market-based trading system, such as a carbon tax or fee. In a unanimous vote in Sacramento on Wednesday, the board adopted the revised environmental analysis while still affirming its original decision. But the board’s vote may not forestall another legal challenge. The original plaintiffs argued in Wednesday’s hearing that the revised analysis still failed to adequately consider other options. UCLA law professor Cara Horowitz said “most assuredly” the matter would be back before the court. Board chief Mary Nichols said she has not always supported cap and trade in part because it would be difficult to administer. “I had my doubts,” she said, adding that many details remain to be hashed out. “It is a form of California leadership that involves some risk. This is still the most viable of the alternatives to achieve the goals of AB 32.” Originally scheduled for implementation next year, industry compliance with the cap-and-trade program will now take effect in 2013 …”

Chromium-six linkfest

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

 Revelations that a growing plume of chromium-six-laced groundwater is spreading through L.A.’s acquifers and soil hasn’t captured the attention it deserves in a summer of high-anxiety about Afghanistan, the endless recession, the oil spill in the Gulf, and, of course, Lindsay Lohan’s rebab. The highly toxic industrial chemical has forced the L.A. Department of Water and Power to quietly close fifty-five wells after long downplaying the problem. Chromium-six, a.k.a. chrome-six and hexavalent chromium, owes much of its presence here to Cold War military production and plating operations. Until recently, L.A., Burbank and Glendale dealt with its chromium-six tainted water by dumping it in the Los Angeles River or blending it with clean supplies, because it is a difficult chemical to filter at traditional treatment facilities.

I’ve writing about the subject for close to sixteen years, and figured I’d post those stories from latest to oldest so those affected by this under-the-radar, oft-lethal chemical can understand its history without alarmism or apathy.

* “Clearing the waters: New charges point out dearth of prosecutions in chromium 6 cases of contaminated groundwater - Los Angeles CityBeat, November 18, 2004.

* Impossible Choices: while cleaning up solvents in L.A.’s water supply, did regulators pull another potentially deadly chemical into the pipes?” - Los Angeles CityBeat, July 8, 2004.

* Dropping Science: chromium-six is a known carcinogen, but the implosion of a blue-ribbon panel of scientists means we still don’t know how much is safe in L.A.’s drinking water” - Los Angeles CityBeat, June 3, 2004.

* “Troubled Waters: chromium-six is the same poison made infamous by Erin Brockovich. Now it poses a ‘clear and present danger’ to the water supply of Los Angeles” - Los Angeles CityBeat, April 22, 2004.

* “DWP Failed to Inform Council on Tainted Water”Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2000 

Calls for Reducing Chromium in Water Go Unheeded - Los Angeles Times, August, 20, 2000.

* “Lockheed Fears Persist: Burbank-Area Residents Dispute Cancer-Incident Survey” - Daily News of Los Angeles, November 3, 1996.

* “Memos Detail Lockheed Settlement”Daily News of Los Angeles, September 30, 1996.

* Lockheed Quagmire Grows: Contractor Wants Pentagon to Pay Hunk of Toxic Cleanup Tab” - Daily News of Los Angeles, September 15, 1996.

* “Toxic Law May Have Swayed Lockheed Case” – Daily News of Los Angeles, August 26, 1996.

* Lockheed Resolves Toxic Claims: Residents near Burbank B-1 plan to receive $60-million” - Daily News of Los Angeles, August 4, 1996.

EPA to the rescue, right, and alarming news about particulate matter

Thursday, June 18th, 2009


From the MSNBC story about the asbestos situation in Montana, where the government declared, for the first time, a public health emergency. If you read our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, you’ll see how close Southern California was for asking for that same designation, even if the EPA was decades from being created.

“… Asbestos contamination from a now-closed vermiculite operations near Libby has been cited in the deaths of more than 200 people and illnesses of thousands more. Vermiculite is used to make insulation material but the ore found in Libby was eventually found to be contaminated with a toxic form of naturally-occurring asbestos …

Miners carried vermiculite dust home on their clothes, vermiculite once covered school running tracks in Libby and some residents used vermiculite as mulch in their home gardens …”

Here’s another recap of what’s happening with a renewed federal effort in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, where the mining of uranium ore on Najavo lands “left a legacy of disease and death.”

“The federal government plans to spend up to $3 million a year to demolish and rebuild uranium-contaminated structures across the Navajo Nation, where Cold War-era mining of the radioactive substance left a legacy of disease and death.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Navajo counterpart are focusing on homes, sheds and other buildings within a half-mile to a mile from a significant mine or waste pile. They plan to assess 500 structures over five years and rebuild those that are too badly contaminated …”

Finally, in our last item of environmental news catchup, comes this health study by USC, UCLA and the California Air Resources Board that shows particulate matter drifts signifcantly and dangerously farther than once assumed.

“Environmental health researchers from UCLA, the University of Southern California and the California Air Resources Board have found that during the hours before sunrise, freeway air pollution extends much further than previously thought.

Air pollutants from Interstate 10 in Santa Monica extend as far as 2,500 meters — more than 1.5 miles — downwind, based on recent measurements from a research team headed by Dr. Arthur Winer, a professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health. This distance is 10 times greater than previously measured daytime pollutant impacts from roadways and has significant exposure implications, since most people are in their homes during the hours before sunrise and outdoor pollutants penetrate into indoor environments …”