(NaturalNews) A third of all drinking water sampled in California is contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, say environmental groups in a lawsuit targeting the state's Department of Public Health.
In their suit, the National Resources Defense Council, along with the Environmental Working Group, contend that the Legislature ordered the state's top health agency to develop drinking water standards for the carcinogen by January 2004, but so far the department has declined to do so. The suit claims the delay is unjustified and is asking the court to impose a faster deadline.
"Made famous by the 2000 film 'Erin Brockovich,' hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen and drinking water contaminant," the complaint says. "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."
Continuing, the suit says, "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."
Forced to act by the real-life Brockovich
The agency's failure to develop standards is creating a public health nuisance and endangering residents and visitors, say the groups.
Hexavalent chromium is a heavy metal that is also known as chromium-6. It's used in pigment and paint production, tanning, stainless steel welding and other things, and it's been found in two-thirds' of the nation's Superfund environmental clean-up sites.
"Hexavalent chromium enters the drinking water supply through surface water runoff from industrial operations and soil leachate conveyed into groundwater," says the suit. "People may be exposed to hexavalent chromium by drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, inhaling polluted air, and contacting contaminated soils."
Coming primarily from industrial pollution, exposure can cause cancer, liver problems, stomach ulcers and lesions, and lower sperm counts, reports said. It can also occur naturally, however.
The state Legislature directed the health department to act after the real-life Brockovich exposed the case of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., which stood accused of leaking the chemical into the groundwater of Hinckley, a small town in the Mojave Desert about 122 miles northwest of Los Angeles, which caused health problems, including cancer.
On its website, the department said in a July 27, 2011 announcement it established a Public Health Goal (PHG) of 0.02 parts per billion (ppb) for hexavalent chromium, the so-called "Erin Brockovic Chemical." "The health-protective level is based on avoidance of potential carcinogenic effects," the announcement said.
Nevertheless, say plaintiffs, a third of all drinking water sources tested in the state have hexavalent chromium concentrations of at least one part per billion.
Plaintiffs to court: Set a date for compliance
"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," says the complaint.
According to the Huffington Post, the highest concentrations were reported in southern California, including in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Santa Barbara counties.
Plaintiffs maintain that the state health department could have met its 2004 deadline if officials had given it more effort than less-important tasks. The groups called the delay in fixing standards "unreasonable and unjustified," as well as a violation of the state's Health & Safety Code.
The groups have asked the court to compel the department to set drinking water standards "on a date set by the court that will ensure speedy performance of the statutory duty."
The Environmental Protection Agency, by the way, has not set federal contamination levels for chromium-6, though the agency last year released recommendations for monitoring the chemical in water tables and is further considering whether to set nationwide chromium-6 standards.