Board Votes to Give Public Details of Draft Negotiated Behind Closed Doors
Saying the public has a right to know, San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority board members voted unanimously to publicly release a draft $250 million groundwater cleanup agreement over the objections of Aerojet and other polluters who said the cleanup negotiations should remain behind closed doors.
The action culminates more than two years of private negotiations for a cleanup deal to finance, construct and operate facilities to remove industrial contaminants and restore groundwater supply in the Azusa-Baldwin Park area, which has been on the federal Superfund cleanup list since 1984.
The 7-0 vote authorized the WQA staff to release the 130-page draft at 3 p.m. on Monday, January 28 after a few minor changes were made in the text. Saying the draft deal was their final offer, board members noted that Aerojet-General Corp. and the other polluters told the public more than two years ago that they were weeks away from signing a cleanup deal.
"We have said all along that the polluters should pay for the cleanup," said Bob Kuhn, chairman of the Water Quality Authority board. "If we fail to reach an agreement, the public has a right to know the details of the deal we negotiated in good faith and how close we were when the polluters walked away."
Aerojet attorneys had argued that details of the draft deal should be kept from public view and that public release could jeopardize a settlement.
WQA board members said they weren't taking the step lightly but they hoped the action would result in a successful conclusion to the negotiations. But after 28 months of negotiating, they said they felt an obligation to let the public, especially water rate payers, know the details.
"I don't want to have to keep telling people that I can't tell them what's going on with the negotiations because they are private," said board member Ken Manning. "Let's get the details out in the open. There's a lot at stake for the public. If Aerojet and the others walk away because of that, we can't stop them. But I think this is the right thing to do."
Five areas of the San Gabriel Valley, including the Azusa-Baldwin Park area, were placed on the federal Superfund cleanup list in 1984 after traces of industrial solvents and rocket fuel were found in the groundwater.
Water providers have maintained a safe water supply by closing more than 30 wells affected by spreading contamination. But without the cleanup they are in danger of losing more and more wells, which provide 90 percent of the valley's water supply.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified Aerojet and 19 other Responsible Parties as the source of the largest contaminated area, which is in the vicinity of Azusa-Baldwin Park area. In September 1999, Aerojet and 11 other polluters made an offer to fund a $200 million cleanup but the talks broke down a year later without an agreement.
The EPA ordered Aerojet and the others to begin the cleanup without an agreement and WQA and other water providers sued Aerojet to recover public funds they had already spent on emergency cleanup facilities. In January 2001, Aerojet and six other responsible parties made a $4 million payment to WQA and other water providers and agreed to resume negotiations for a comprehensive agreement.
With no agreement after nearly a year, local water agencies, including the Water Quality Authority, called on EPA to help exert pressure on Aerojet and the responsible parties to sign the agreement. Board members said the EPA has established a public record of supporting the proposed agreement, citing the following facts.
? In 1999, all parties agreed in principal to pursue a comprehensive cleanup and water supply agreement and in September 1999, the responsible parties made a good faith offer to fund a $200 million cleanup.
? After nearly a year of negotiation did not yield an agreement, the EPA in June 2000 formally ordered the responsible parties to design and build the cleanup and water supply facilities. Under federal law, responsible parties that failed to comply could be found in violation of the order and fined up to $27,500 a day.
? The EPA's order said polluters "must reach all necessary agreements relevant to the disposition of the treated water in a timely manner to demonstrate that the planned method of disposition is feasible."
? The EPA emphasized its position in an April 5, 2001 letter to the responsible parties, stating that the cleanup plan "is achievable and in the public interest."
WQA board members said they thought it was reasonable at this point to question whether Aerojet and the others have been negotiating in good faith.
"We hope that's not the case," Kuhn said. "But it's time for the public to know the details. We have lost nothing by lifting the veil and letting the light of day shine on the negotiations."
The WQA, the Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster and the water purveyors have maintained from the start that the polluters should pay for the cleanup and that the clean water, which meets all state and federal drinking water standards, should not be wasted but used to replace the water supply that had been lost due to contamination.
Water providers have lost more than 31 wells to migrating plumes of underground contamination since the valley contamination sites were put on the federal Superfund list 18 years ago.
"Our backs are to the wall," Manning said. "If we're never going to get an agreement, we should not be wasting our time. We should be moving forward to fund and build the water supply projects that the residents of the valley need."
Under federal law, the WQA, Watermaster and water providers would be able to sue the polluters later to recover costs after they have spent the money. But in order to raise the initial capital necessary to build the projects, some water providers have said they might have to raise water rates. In effect, ratepayers would fund the cleanup pending the outcome of federal lawsuits.
"We feel it would be a breach of our public duty to keep the public in the dark and allow the polluters to quietly shift cleanup costs to ratepayers," Mr. Kuhn said. "The document we are releasing needs only the signatures of Aerojet and the other RPs and the blessing of EPA. This is a good time to let the public know exactly where we stand because we are ultimately accountable to them."
The California Legislature created the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority in 1992 to coordinate and accelerate the cleanup. The WQA has generated $35 million for cleanup projects, including $12 million in government grants and $13 million from potentially responsible parties who entered into settlement agreements to pay a share of the cleanup.
Urgency projects completed with WQA participation have removed 10 tons of contaminants from the basin, more than half of all contamination removed since 1979. But this is only a small portion of the total contaminants that will be removed by the cleanup facilities outlined in the EPA's cleanup plan for the Basin.