What Lies Beneath
By Alex Distefano
Two years ago, the Golden State Water Co.—which serves Barstow—alerted its customers to some startling news: high levels of perchlorate, a potentially hazardous rocket-fuel chemical, were found in the water supply.
“Golden State Water Company is aggressively investigating our water system to determine the source of contamination so that it can be eliminated,” the company told residents in a written statement.
At one point, the contamination was affecting more than 40,000 customers—even the governor declared a local emergency and local residents had to rely on bottled water. And while it was determined that perchlorate had contaminated several Golden State wells, the true source of the contamination was never found. Until now.
The source of contamination was recently traced to a single well located on a residential property on Poplar Street. The five-acre piece of land belonged to the now-deceased owner of Mojave Pyrotechnics, a fireworks manufacturing company from the 1980s that is no longer in business.
This week, contaminated soil was finally trucked out of Barstow, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But are Barstow’s water problems over? The EPA seems to think so.
According to EPA public affairs specialist Nahal Mogharabi, 98 truckloads—approximately 1,100 tons—of top soil contaminated with this nasty stuff were removed by trucks and hauled off the Poplar Street property.
“This is the only property that the EPA has found to be contaminated,”
Mogharabi told the Weekly. He added that residents should no longer be worried as a total of three feet of soil was removed and disposed of at a site that specializes in taking in contaminated materials.
Perchlorate is a chemical used in rocket fuel, munitions and fireworks. In sufficient quantities, perchlorate can harm the thyroid gland and interfere with the development of fetuses and babies.
“The excavated soil is going to [the] US Ecology [a private company that treats and disposes of radioactive and hazardous waste] landfill in Beatty, Nevada,” Mogharabi says.
He says the amount of soil removed was sufficient enough to remove the contamination threat. Any soil with detectable amounts of perchlorate of more than 55 parts per million was removed, Mogharabi says.
The month-long clean-up process involved excavation of the contaminated dirt and its replacement with uncontaminated soil.
But considering Barstow’s two-year ordeal a natural question is: Are Barstow’s contamination problems finally over? Local residents were likely wondering this two years ago when the then-water crisis was declared over and the do-not-drink-tap-water warnings were lifted.
The issue is certainly top-of-mind considering the potential threat that perchlorate can cause. Even the EPA’s own website underscores the possible threat: “Perchlorate may have adverse health effects because scientific research indicates that this contaminant can disrupt the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for normal growth and development.”
The Weekly was unable to determine why it took two years to seemingly fix Barstow’s contamination problems once and for all.
All we got from the EPA is more unknowns and some lukewarm assurance that the problem was finally over.
“It is at this point assumed that containers of perchlorate, which were used at a former business in Barstow, were stored on the residential property and the material was spilled,” Mogharabi says. “It is unknown if the spill was intentional or not. State and federal investigations have found no other potentially responsible parties other than the current property owner.”
The scary thing is that this isn’t the first time the IE community had to grapple with the ugly face of perchlorate. Rialto groundwater, according to a recent Press-Enterprise story, continues to be haunted by perchlorate contamination from the ’80s and ’90s—and residents say their health has been severely and adversely affected. Contamination from a former Lockheed site in Mentone contaminated water supplies in Redlands, Loma Linda and Riverside.
Just a few miles away from Barstow lies the town of Hinkley, which is still dealing with the type of contamination and health issues made famous in Erin Brockovich.
For now, the EPA assures Barstow that all is well and the contamination is gone.