News Feature | February 24, 2014

Will Erin Brockovich Regs Cost Communities Dearly?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Local officials in California are concerned that a potential statewide drinking water regulation may hit municipalities with challenging new costs.

The proposal would regulate a chemical made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich” by lowering the allowable level of chromium-6 in drinking water. Chromium-6 "has been known to cause cancer when inhaled and has also been linked to cancer when ingested," according to the state health department.  

California is the first state in the nation to propose such a rule. But local government leaders are unsure it is feasible.

Officials in the city of Watsonville, located in the California Central Coast, say the proposed regulation could "cost the city more than $26 million" because they would need to "install a treatment system," the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported. Beyond that, it could cost the city "another $1.7 million each year for operations."

"Consumer water bills would skyrocket 78 percent to cover the cost to meet the standard for the carcinogenic chromium 6 at eight of 12 municipal wells," the Sentinel reported, citing the claims of government officials. 

Some members of the city council have been "calling for the state to reevaluate the cost versus benefit, and if the California Department of Public Health proposed regulation is adopted, to give cities additional time and funding to comply," the report said. 

"We agree that everyone deserves safe water," Public Works and Utilities Director Steve Palmisano said in the report. "The question is, what is the best use of the public money when there's so much need, especially in disadvantaged communities like Watsonville."

Chromium-6, also known as hexavalent chromium "can be the result of industrial pollution, but naturally occurs in aquifers throughout California, including those tapped by Watsonville and the Soquel Creek Water District for drinking water," the report said. 

"Current state regulations allow total chromium levels of 50 parts per billion, half the national standard. But the standard includes both toxic chromium 6, as well as the benign chromium 3, an essential dietary nutrient for humans," the report said. 

Currently, there is no federal or state limit specific to chromium-6, according to the state health department. 

"California's proposed MCL is the first in the nation to directly regulate this chemical in state-wide public drinking water systems. Currently, hexavalent chromium is regulated in drinking water through the total chromium MCL (hexavalent chromium is one of the forms of chromium making up total chromium)," the department said.  

The department further explained current rules: "In California, the total chromium MCL is 50 ppb, which is more health protective than the federal MCL of 100 ppb. Total chromium MCLs were established without the scientific knowledge that ingested hexavalent chromium from the consumption of drinking water posed a cancer risk," it continued. 

Brockavich, the real-life environmental advocate played by Julia Roberts in a film based on her life, said the chromium-6 rules should be tighter than the current proposal. “This is a step forward, but it is nowhere near where it should have been,” Brockovich said in a telephone interview with the San Bernardino Sun.

Glendale, CA is currently studying chromium-6. 

"The budget for Glendale’s long-running research into a cancer-causing contaminant found in the city’s groundwater is set to jump to roughly $11 million as the City Council this week approved another $1.1 million in grant funding," the Glendale News-Press reported last week

Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is offering some residents in a California community "a free water purification system until more is understood about the nature of their pollution," the San Bernardino Sun said in a separate piece

"Officially, Hinkley’s plume of cancer-causing chromium-6 is now eight miles long, from north to south, traversing the Hinkley Gap and approaching the Harper dry lake," the report said. 

For case studies and white papers, check out Water Online's Contaminant Removal Solution Center

Image credit: "Sprinklers at Sunset," © 2011 tbridge, used under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license:

Want to publish your opinion?

Contact us to become part of our Editorial Community.