California today proposed a long-awaited standard for a cancer-causing contaminant in drinking water that would require costly treatment in many cities throughout the state.

Traces of hexavalent chromium are widely found in the drinking water of millions of Californians, with some of the contamination naturally occurring and some from industries that work with the heavy metal.

The proposed standard is a major step in a decades-long effort to curtail the water contaminant made infamous by the movie “Erin Brockovich,” based on residents of rural Hinkley who won more than $300 million from Pacific Gas and Electric for contamination of their drinking water.

Once finalized, the standard would be the first in the nation to specifically target hexavalent chromium.

Several hundred drinking water wells throughout the state exceed the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposed standard of 10 parts per billion. The highest levels were reported in parts of Ventura, Los Angeles, Yolo, Merced and Riverside counties. Residents of the lower-income, mostly Latino city of Los Banos, for instance, are drinking water that contains three times more than the proposed standard would allow.

Water suppliers say the proposed standard would lead to substantially higher monthly rates for many residents, while public health experts and environmental advocates criticize it as not protective enough of people’s health.

“It’s not terrible, but it’s not acceptable,” Max Costa, professor and chair of environmental medicine at NYU’s School of Medicine, said of California’s proposal. Costa was an expert witness for residents in the Erin Brockovich case. When it comes to hexavalent chromium in drinking water, he said, “The most acceptable level is none.”

Under the water board’s proposal, 10 parts per billion would be the maximum allowable amount in drinking water. It’s a minute amount, equivalent to about 10 drops of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool. But it’s also 500 times greater than the amount California’s scientists deem a negligible cancer risk over a lifetime.

Under state law, the state must balance the health risk and the financial cost when setting drinking water standards.

Air pollution in East Oakland

Hexavalent chromium pollution in the air has been a longstanding issue for residents who live next to the AB&I foundry in East Oakland. In February, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit against the foundry, which produces cast-iron pipes, alleging it both failed to eliminate hexavalent chromium from its emissions and to warn nearby residents about the risks posed to them by living close to the foundry.

The community, which is next to the Oakland Coliseum, is majority people of color and lower-income, with 85% of residents living below the poverty line, and 66% of its residents identifying as Latino and 21% as African American, according to a press release from Bonta’s office. There also are 10 schools located within a mile of the foundry.

The foundry also was sued by an Oakland environmental group, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), in December of 2021. CBE quoted East Oakland resident Jasmine Gonzalez in a press release, who said: “My family’s access to clean air is controlled by AB&I. Whenever I smell the burnt rubber odor coming from AB&I, which causes me to get headaches, I have to rush to shut all of my windows and doors to try to stop the odor from coming into my home. This also limits the amount of time that we are able to be outside. I often ask myself how is it that this company has been able to pollute the deep East Oakland community and beyond for so long?”

The foundry has been in operation in East Oakland for over 100 years.

In response to the lawsuits, AB&I announced earlier this month that it would shutter the factory in East Oakland and move operations to an existing facility in Tyler, Texas. AB&I is a fictitious name used by parent company McWane Inc., which has been fined in the past, including $8 million as part of a 2009 lawsuit, for “dozens of workplace safety and environmental crimes.” Activists note that with AB&I’s departure, the problem isn’t being solved — it’s just moving elsewhere.

The closure of the AB&I factory in East Oakland means that its 200 workers soon may be out of work. AB&I has given the workers the option to relocate to the plant in Texas. Despite the foundry’s history of pollution, Ernesto Arevalo, Northern California program director with CBE, lamented the loss of jobs in the community, saying, “We shouldn’t have to choose between jobs and our lives in East Oakland. AB&I Foundry has an opportunity now to clean up its operations and protect the community.”

Still not a negligible cancer risk

California’s proposal is a draft, released to solicit public comment before officially starting the regulatory process, which could begin by late summer. An official drinking water standard is expected to be finalized in early 2024.

Until recently, the science was mixed on whether hexavalent chromium causes cancer when ingested, rather than inhaled. (Inhaling it has been a well-documented cause of lung cancer for workers for several decades.)

But in 2008, National Toxicology Program studies showed that rats and mice that drank high doses of hexavalent chromium for two years developed oral and intestinal cancers. In addition, California state scientists who analyzed the scientific literature reported increased stomach cancer risk among people who work with hexavalent chromium.

Chemical industry representatives have criticized the studies, saying the rodents were drinking levels much higher than people are exposed to. Mice and rats are routinely given large doses to extrapolate the cancer risk to a larger human population that lives longer.

In 2011, California scientists set a nonenforceable public health goal for hexavalent chromium that is much more stringent than today’s proposal — 0.02 parts per billion. The amount was chosen because it poses a negligible, one-in-a-million lifetime cancer risk that is generally considered acceptable for environmental contaminants.

The water board’s proposal would pose a much higher risk — one cancer among every 2,000 people over a lifetime, according to the state’s risk assessment.

“I think we would all much prefer to be at a better protective level than 1 in 2,000 cancer cases,” said Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the division of drinking water with the State Water Resources Control Board. “But the costs do impose a really high burden at the lower [standard] levels, and just couldn’t strike that balance there. So, I wish there was a different scenario to paint.”

The limit is likely to be tested in court. It’s happened before: In 2014, California set a short-lived standard of 10 parts per billion. But in 2017, a judge overturned it, ruling that state regulators had failed to consider whether the rule would be economically feasible.

“Water systems have had over twenty years to invest in appropriate treatment while communities have faced tragedy and the health cost burdens because of this chemical,” Brockovich, an activist who was instrumental in the PG&E settlement, said in a statement today. “That makes it all the more disgraceful that the State Water Board is proposing a drinking water standard that will not protect the California public. This is nothing more than regulatory lip service.”

Hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, is used in industrial processes such as metal-plating, stainless steel production and wood preservation. It also naturally occurs in certain California rocks and soil.

State data shows that 129 community drinking water systems serving more than 4.1 million people have reported hexavalent chromium levels above the proposed standard. In addition, 51 systems serving institutions and businesses — including 11 schools — and three water wholesalers exceed the proposed limit. (Some wells may no longer be supplying water to residents.)

The highest level reported by the state is in Ventura County, where one drinking water well was reported with 173 parts per billion — more than 17 times higher than the proposed standard.

Some contamination, such as in the Coachella Valley, is naturally occurring. Some, like in the San Fernando Valley, is linked to industrial contamination. And some may be a combination of both.

Latino communities and those with larger populations of other people of color are more likely to have drinking water with average levels of hexavalent chromium above 5 parts per billion, according to Lara Cushing, a UCLA assistant professor of environmental health who conducted a recent study.

Current federal and California drinking water standards combine hexavalent chromium and its more benign alter ego, trivalent chromium, which is considered an essential nutrient. Federal drinking water standards cap total chromium at 100 parts per billion, and California at 50 parts per billion.

Higher rates for customers

Once a standard is finalized, water suppliers will have to remove the chemical from drinking water to below 10 parts per billion or face penalties that could include fines of up to $1,000 a day.

They can treat the water at plants or at household taps through reverse osmosis or another technology, blend it with clean water, take contaminated wells offline or pipe water from another system.

The proposal gives water providers some time to comply, Polhemus said — two to four years after the rule’s adoption, depending on their size. In the interim, water providers that detect hexavalent chromium will be required to submit their plans and timeline for attaining the standard.

Domestic well owners — like those in the San Bernardino County town of Hinkley portrayed in the movie — are not covered by drinking water standards. Private well owners are generally responsible for testing and treating their own water.

The cost of treatment is likely to increase customer rates, although some water agencies might opt for a cheaper option, such as blending their water with cleaner sources.

Rates for the smallest water systems — fewer than 100 connections — could increase by around $38 per month if suppliers install treatment in households. Systems with between 100 and 200 connections may see hikes as high as $44 to $167 per month, based on installing reverse osmosis or other costly treatment systems, according to state estimates. The largest water providers, which can buffer the costs across all customers, could have monthly increases between $0.75 and $45.

State regulators couldn’t predict which funding would be available when a standard is eventually finalized but said that, in general, state and federal programs help communities clean up their drinking water.

Some larger water providers are looking forward to the end of a drawn-out regulatory process.

“I’ve been hoping for it to be refinalized for some time,” said Tarrah Henrie, manager of water quality for California Water Service, the third largest regulated water utility in the country. “It just gives us certainty.”

The utility has nearly 500 active wells around the state. Of them, 20 wells tested above 10 parts per billion of hexavalent chromium. The wells are located in the Solano County town of Dixon, the Glenn County town of Willows and two small water systems near Salinas.

Ten of the wells are being treated — in Willows, with the help of a state grant. Though rates increased slightly in Dixon, Henrie said, the company has been able to prevent customer rates from spiking by subsidizing residents there. Without the subsidy, customer rates in Willows and Dixon would have increased by 18% to 28%.

Los Banos in Merced County is bracing for the financial hit.

Rates could increase “exponentially,” said the city’s outside counsel, Mary Lynn Coffee. Costs to treat water from 13 wells could run from $41.6 million to $92.3 million, with annual costs running between $1.7 million and $5.1 million, Coffee said, based on a 2015 assessment. The city’s water budget has averaged around $4.7 million for the last four years.

The 13 wells that serve the largely Latino city of around 45,000 people have average hexavalent chromium levels of around 29.8 parts per billion, three times higher than the proposed standard would allow. Los Banos residents earn on average about 60% of the state average, and California has categorized the city as “disadvantaged.”

Since all signs point to the hexavalent chromium being naturally occurring, “there is no polluter that would help contribute to the cost of cleanup,” Coffee said. “Disadvantaged communities are really in desperate need of state funding assistance if they’re going to meet a new [limit] around the 10 parts per billion mark.”

KQED’s Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman contributed reporting for this story.

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