The Litigation Front Broadens as Water Providers Battle Spreading Contamination
More than 40 parties identified by federal authorities as responsible for groundwater contamination in the South El Monte area have been hit with three separate lawsuits seeking millions in past and future cleanup costs and damages, water officials said today.
The lawsuits filed in federal court by the City of Monterey Park, the San Gabriel Valley Water Company and the Southern California Water Company charge the defendants with responsibility for contamination of the groundwater that threatens the public water supply.
"Our repeated efforts to reach an agreement out of court have been unsuccessful because while some parties have stepped up to the plate and settled with us, the defendants named in the lawsuit have refused to accept responsibility for their share of the cleanup," said Mike Whitehead, president of the San Gabriel Valley Water Company. "The recalcitrant parties will have to take their chances in court."
Monterey Park and the two water utilities, along with the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority, have spent well over $6,000,000 to ensure that the water provided to customers meets all federal and state drinking water standards. Full operation of the cleanup facilities will cost millions more. Under the federal Superfund law, they are entitled to recover the funds already spent and future cleanup costs from the Responsible Parties identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition, the City and the two water utilities have sued for damages allowed by state law. Most of the defendants, for example, are also accused of creating a nuisance and interfering with public water utilities, a count that under state law could result in treble damages being awarded to the City and the two water utilities.
"Our ratepayers should not have to pay for these costs," said Monterey Park Mayor Fred Balderrama. "We have spent a lot of money to deal with the public water supply problems caused by the contamination. If those responsible for the cleanup costs continue to drag their feet, we will do our best to bring the full weight of federal and state law to bear upon them."
The two water utilities filed their lawsuits today. Monterey Park filed its suit on July 29. All of the parties named in the lawsuits are already defendants in a suit filed in June by the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority to recover more than $5,000,000 in cleanup costs incurred in the South El Monte area.
"We are very pleased the three water providers have joined our legal efforts to recover cleanup costs and hold the polluters accountable," said WQA Chairman Bob Kuhn. "These defendants have not demonstrated a willingness to take responsibility for the cleanup."
The WQA announced last month that it and the three water providers had reached a $4.7 million settlement with 13 Responsible Parties identified by the EPA in the South El Monte area. While those 13 parties will be excused from the WQA lawsuit, 54 others remain as defendants. The three new lawsuits name a total of 41 parties from among the defendants that remain in the WQA suit.
The WQA is a special agency created in 1992 by the state Legislature to coordinate and accelerate the cleanup throughout the San Gabriel Valley.
Earlier this year, the WQA and other water entities secured a $250 million cleanup agreement with responsible parties in the Baldwin Park-Azusa area. The agency's attention is now focused on the South El Monte area where major plumes of underground contamination similarly have forced the closure of many wells.
With the focus now on the South El Monte area, the City of Monterey Park and the two water utilities have become key players in the effort to recover cleanup costs. In total, the three water providers serve more than 64,000 water customers in the San Gabriel Valley.
The South El Monte area is one of six areas of groundwater contamination in the San Gabriel Valley that were placed on the federal Superfund cleanup list by the U.S. EPA in the 1980s.
Water supply problems have become critical for water providers in the area because of the spread of the contamination. Many water providers have had to purchase water imported from Northern California or the Colorado River at costs up to 10 times greater than well water.
Last March, the EPA sent notices to all of those named as Responsible Parties in the South El Monte area demanding "good faith" offers to fund the cleanup. Well before the letters were sent, the WQA and the water providers had been trying to reach a settlement without success.
Counting today's actions, a total of nine lawsuits have been filed by the WQA or water providers in the San Gabriel Valley to recover cleanup costs from parties identified as responsible for the federal Superfund cleanup.