OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - One-third of the drinking water sampled in California is contaminated with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, environmental groups claim in a lawsuit against the state's Department of Public Health.
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The National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group say the Legislature ordered the Department of Public Health to establish drinking water standards for the toxic chemical by January 2004, but it still has not done so.
"Made famous by the 2000 film 'Erin Brockovich,' hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen and drinking water contaminant," the complaint states. "At least one-third of drinking water sources sampled statewide - sources that provide drinking water to tens of millions of Californians - are contaminated with hexavalent chromium concentrations higher than those that the state deems to pose no significant health risk. ...
"More than a decade after the Legislature ordered the Department to act, and more than eight years after the statutory deadline for action passed, the Department has not even proposed a hexavalent chromium drinking water standard. The Department presently estimates on its website that it will not publish a final drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium for at least another two to three years."
This endangers public health, the groups say.
Hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal, is also known as chromium-6. It is used in pigment and paint production, tanning, and stainless steel welding, among other things. Hexavalent chromium has been found at two-thirds of the nation's Superfund sites.
"Hexavalent chromium enters the drinking water supply through surface water runoff from industrial operations and soil leachate conveyed into groundwater," the complaint states.
"People may be exposed to hexavalent chromium by drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, inhaling polluted air, and contacting contaminated soils."
Exposure to the chemical creates an increased risk of cancer, liver problems, stomach ulcers and lesions, and decreased sperm count, according to the complaint.
In July 2011, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment "determined that a concentration of 0.02 parts per billion of hexavalent chromium in drinking water poses no significant risk to public heath," and published this level as a public health goal, the complaint states.
But the plaintiffs say that one-third of drinking water sources tested in California have hexavalent chromium concentrations of at least 1 part per billion
"A hexavalent chromium concentration of one part per billion is fifty times the public health goal. Upon information and belief, many more drinking water sources in California contain hexavalent chromium at levels below one part per billion, but above the PHG [public health goal] for hexavalent chromium," the complaint states.
Water sources near large cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, and Riverside had the highest levels of contamination, according to the complaint.
The Environmental Protection Agency has not established federal contamination levels for hexavalent chromium.
The plaintiffs say the Department could have met its 2004 deadline had it used its resources to work on it of on less-important tasks. The environmentalists call the delay "unreasonable and unjustified," and a violation of the Health & Safety Code.
"Even if the Department meets the estimated completion dates it provided on its website, the drinking water standard would arrive more than a decade after the deadline set by the Legislature. The Department's continued failure to devote sufficient resources to develop the MCL for hexavalent chromium contributes to the department's delay in issuing a standard. The Department is capable of finalizing, and legally required to finalize, a primary drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium more quickly than its present public estimates," the complaint states.
The groups ask the court to compel the Department to establish drinking water standards "on a date set by the court that will ensure speedy performance of the statutory duty."
They are represented by NRDC staff attorney Michael Wall, in San Francisco.