Cleaning up California's water may prove expensive

Water in California is already expensive, but depending on how low the state sets its long overdue health standard for hexavalent chromium, you might end up paying a lot more.

If you want to know how to remove hexavalent chromium from drinking water, you need to go to Glendale.

"Technically it is a very good process, very simple," said Don Froelich of Glendale Water and Power.

Froelich and his team have been doing research for 10 years to address not only Glendale's issues with hexavalent chromium, but the statewide problem.

Data from the Department Of Public Health shows different levels of the compound in water across the state -- some low, some high. Hexavalent chromium is known to cause cancer when inhaled but there is debate over how much you can drink.

"We've shown very comfortably and reliably we can get down to one part per billion," Froelich said.

That's down from 80 parts per billion in Glendale.

But Froelich says the simple process they developed isn't cheap.

"We certainly cannot treat all of that water with, you know, with chromium removal," he said. "Otherwise we couldn't afford the water. We'd be paying as much for our water as we are for our cell phone bill."

The cost depends on what the Department of Public Health sets as the standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water -- a standard that by law was supposed to establish nine years ago.

"The lower you have to remove it the greater the cost the cost of going to be," Froelich said.

According to the Water Research Foundation and the American Water Works Association, if the standard is set at 1 part per billion, the overall cost for initial set-up to affected water systems across the state, both public and private, could be as high as $21 billion. If the state sets the standard at 10 parts per billion, the systems could have to pay $3.1 billion to start clean-up.

"It's a poison; it's well documented, shouldn't be in your water," activist Erin Brockovich said.

Brockovich says the standard should be 0.02 for hexavalent chromium in drinking water -- the public health goal set in 2011 by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

The public health goal is not enforceable. It's used to help guide the Department Of Public Health's official standard. But it is considered "protective against all identified toxic effects" from hexavalent chromium present in drinking water.

Froelich points out there is no process to get down to a 0.02 level -- that might take another 10 years.

Bruce Macler with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencysays more research needs to be done to see how much hexavalent chromium is dangerous to drink.

"The degree that that happens is still unknown; people are working on it," Macler said.

The ABC7 News I-Team took water samples from drinking fountains in two Bay Area cities to see if hexavalent chromium is in the water. At the Santa Clara County government administration building, we found a 1.64 parts per billion level. Down the road at Ryland Park, the number jumped to 2.95 parts per billion.

Officials from San Jose Water Company declined to talk to on camera, but confirmed they have between one and seven parts per billion of hexavalent chromium in their wells. If the state sets a low standard, they estimate it will cost about $500 million dollars to remove.

The tests in Livermore found no detection of hexavalent chromium at Tex Spruiell Park, but 0.48 parts per billion at Bothwell Park.

"No, that's not a surprise," California Water Service Company Manager of Water Quality Tarrah Henrie said.

She says the hexavalent chromium levels in Livermore are as high as 11 parts per billion.

In preparation for the state standard, Cal Water has been running tests on hexavalent chromium removal in conjunction with Glendale, trying to get a better idea of what it will cost them and you.

"In some communities, it could mean doubling, tripling or quadrupling of their water bill," Henrie said.

Hexavalent chromium occurs in nature, but it's also a by-product from industry, such as chrome-plating. The Department Of Public Health declined to speak with ABC7 News for the story, because it's being sued by environmental groups.

The state says it could take until the summer of 2015 before a standard is set -- making it 11 years past the deadline.

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