Sacramento Court Eliminates Former Drinking Water Limit for the Toxin Made Infamous in Erin Brockovich Film
On May 31, 2017 the Superior Court of Sacramento County issued a judgement invalidating a formerly established maximum containment level (MCL) in drinking water for the metal hexavalent chromium also known as hex-chrome or chrom-6. The primary reason for finding the MCL invalid was that the California Department of Public Health (originally responsible for managing drinking water programs before the State Water Resources Control Board [SWRCB] took over) failed to properly consider the economic feasibility of complying with the MCL… meaning the agency failed to consider how realistic the price of any projects or efforts to comply with the MCL would be for the public.
The court ordered the SWRCB to take necessary actions to delete the current hexavalent chromium MCL, of 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L), from the California Code of Regulations and to file with the court by August 15, 2017. The court also ordered the SWRCB to adopt a new MCL for hexavalent chromium, meaning the agency will thoroughly evaluate the old limit of 10 µg/L and depending on their findings, reinstate the former MCL or propose a new one. This process usually takes 18 to 24 months. It is important to note that the state’s maximum ceiling for total chromium (includes hexavalent chromium and another chemical called trivalent chromium) remains in place at 50 µg/L.
Hexavalent chromium is the naturally occurring form of the metallic element chromium, which can be found in rocks, animals, plants, soil, and volcanic dust/gases. Hexavalent chromium is generally produced by industrial processes; it can be found in pigments for dye, paint, ink, and plastic, in anti-corrosive agents, in chrome plating, in particles released during smelting, in fumes from welding stainless steel or other alloys, and even in some cements. Thus, in the industrial workplace, employees can be exposed to the chemical in countless different ways from inhalation, ingestion, and direct contact.
The chemical is considered a highly toxic carcinogen, most notably linked to lung cancer. The ill effects of hexavalent chromium are infamously highlighted in the 1993-1996 legal case between the town of Hinkley, CA and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), that resulted in a $333 million dollar settlement-the largest ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in U.S history. PG&E was found guilty of contaminating public water supply in the town of Hinkley, from the years of 1952-1966, with industrial wastewater containing hexavalent chromium. Many of the Hinkley townspeople suffered numerous physical ailments due to the exposure like bloody noses, intestinal ailments, back problems, rotten teeth, headaches, and tumors. The case was epitomized in the Oscar-nominated film Erin Brockovich of 2000.
It is important to emphasis that this ruling DOES NOT imply that hexavalent chromium is no longer a chemical to worry about when it comes to environmental remediation or monitoring. For one, the judgement calls for the current MCL to simply be reconsidered. Therefore, it is almost certain that an MCL will be reissued and this limit could be lower, the same, or even higher than the previous. The experts at Alta therefore recommend, for the time being, using other published environmental regulatory agency limits for chrom-6 during site assessment, health risk assessment, and remediation activities until a new MCL is established by the water board. Other agency limits include the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Public Health Goal (Public Health Goal-a level of chemical contaminant in drinking water that does not pose a significant risk to health especially when considering the effects of long term exposure) or the EPA RSL (United States Environmental Protection Agency Regional Screening Level)
If you need further assistance or guidance in assessing environmental risk associated with hexavalent chromium, Alta Environmental is here to assist you. If you need expert help with any related site assessments, remediation projects, legal services, and/or other environmental enterprises please do not hesitate to call us at 562-495-5777.
Blog by Natalie Kvochak, Environmental Specialist.
Kasler, D and R Sabalow. 2017. Erink Brockovich weighs in on California’s removal of limits on chemical made famous in movie. Accessed August 2017. http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article164863427.html
Unknown. 2017. Chromium-6 Drinking Water MCL, California State Water Resources Control Board. Accessed August 2017. http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/drinkingwater/Chromium6.shtml
Unknown. 2006. Health Effects of Hexavalent Chromium, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Accessed August 2017. https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/hexavalent_chromium.pdf
Unknown. 2015. Hexavalent Chromium, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Accessed August 2017. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/hexavalent_chromium_508.pdf