Fluoride Action Network

Santa Monica Races to Pave Way for New Water Treatment Facility

Source: The LookOut news | March 25th, 2009 | By Jorge Casuso

More than a decade after Santa Monica’s water supply was discovered tainted by a dangerous gasoline additive*, the City Council on Tuesday gave the go-ahead to begin demolishing parts of the old facility to pave the way for a new state of the art water treatment plant.

Under a settlement with the polluting oil companies, the City must complete the new facility by the end of next year or it must begin paying more than $3 million annually to continue purchasing water from the Metropolitan Water District.

The new plant – funded with some $250 million from two landmark settlements with the polluting oil companies in 2003 and 2006 – is expected to service as many as 90,000 permanent residents and nearly 300,000 daytime visitors.

To restore the City’s Charnock Well Field in nearby Mar Vista by December 31, 2010, the council on Tuesday voted to authorize a $4.6 million contract with Black and Veatch Construction, Inc. to purchase water treatment equipment and provide demolition services. That brings the revised contract to $8.9 million.

“To meet the project schedule, it is necessary to purchase long lead time equipment items and demolish unneeded facilities at the plant site… to prepare the site for future construction,” staff told the council.

Clearing the site will “allow the construction of new facilities to begin immediately upon execution of the amendment in order to expedite the project,” staff said.

Construction plans and specifications for the project – which will use filtration with granular-activated carbon to treat water from the three contaminated wells at the well field –. are approximately 50 percent complete, according to staff.

“The project also provides upgrades to the existing water treatment plant including construction of new systems for drinking water disinfection, softening and fluoridation,” according to staff.

According to the current project schedule, the City must purchase by next month Reverse Osmosis (RO) equipment that softens the drinking water and acts as an additional barrier for the removal of contaminates.

Santa Monica was forced to build the new facility after the gasoline additive MTBE, an oxygenate designed to make gas burn cleaner that is known as an animal carcinogen — was detected in the City’s Charnock Well Field in 1996.

The contamination affected five of the City’s 11 wells and led to the loss of much of Santa Monica’s drinking water. The City was forced to begin importing water from the Metropolitan Water District in 1996 at a cost of $3 million a year, which is paid for from proceeds of the final 2006 settlement with the oil companies.

Three of the oil giants — Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil, along with other smaller companies – reached the first settlement agreement of $121.5 million in 2003. Three years later, the City reached a second settlement with the companies for another $131 million.

Under the 2006 settlement, the City and took on the building of a new water treatment system.

The 2006 settlement released the oil companies from any further litigation, effectively cleared them of any continued legal obligation to build the system and required that they pay for replacement water until the plant is scheduled to go on line in 2010.

If not completed on budget, Santa Monica will be stuck with any additional costs.

Santa Monica’s share of the settlement was significantly reduced last March when the City agreed to pay the largest legal bill in its history — $55 million — to attorneys who assisted in the lawsuits.

The settlement represented 22 percent of the $250 million the City received from the oil companies.

The City has its work cut out. Once released into the ground or water, MTBE “is difficult to contain or clean up,” according to a report by Environment California, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.

“First, it is not biodegradable, so it does not break down by itself. Second, and more importantly, it is highly water soluble and thus spreads quickly throughout an entire body of water,” the report titled “A Legacy of Pollution.”

For information on Major California legislation relating to MTBE visit

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JULY 1996, FROM U.S. Water News Online:

“Santa Monica is the first city in California to be forced to shut down a large part of its drinking-water supply because of contamination by the gasoline additive MTBE — and may be the first large city in the nation to face such a problem.

Excessive amounts of MTBE in water supplies have forced this city of about 100,000 — adjacent to Los Angeles and famed for its beaches — to close three of the five wells in a field that supplies 40 percent of its drinking water.

Now officials say, MTBE contamination may force closing of all wells — including the fourth and fifth wells — in the Charnock Well field in nearby Mar Vista.

MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is manufactured from methanol, a known poison, and used in California as a gasoline additive under clean-air programs.

But MTBE is also drawing continuing criticism for possible adverse health effects. Many of the earlier complaints were based on inhaling fumes from MTBE-laced gasoline or the handling of gasoline, but more recently the complaints have shifted to concerns about water contamination.

In the Santa Monica water supply, MTBE has been detected at concentrations up to 600 parts per billion, resulting in the shutdown of the first three of five water wells. One well, showing only 14 parts per billion of MTBE when first tested, rose earlier this year to 490 parts per billion.

The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has established a level for MTBE of 35 parts per billion.

The Santa Monica problem with MTBE has brought new concerns throughout California, causing state officials to order increased monitoring of all water, in addition to monitoring sites near underground gasoline storage tanks.

The increased monitoring in California comes at a time when the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. has warned about the lack of data on MTBE and called for “immediate” monitoring throughout the U.S.

California officials are also watching the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its decision on re-classifying MTBE as a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. It is now listed as a possible human carcinogen but is expected to be upgraded later this year to a “probable” cause of cancer in humans.

Santa Monica officials have said if the problem of MTBE in their drinking water isn’t resolved, they may have to abandon all the affected wells. The loss of the wells is projected to cost the city $2 million a year or more.

Santa Monica is already buying more water from the Metropolitan Water District at a cost of an additional $22,000 a week, officials said.

The MTBE contamination of the Santa Monica water supply is blamed on leaking underground gasoline tanks near the well field.