Court Requires California to Establish Drinking Water Standard for Dangerous Carcinogen

Decision Follows NRDC, EWG Suit to Protect Millions of Californians from Contaminated Drinking Water

SAN FRANCISCO (July 18, 2013) –The California Superior Court of Alameda today required the state’s Department of Public Health to proceed with setting a standard to protect millions of Californians from unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium in drinking water. The court’s decision comes nearly one year after the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group sued the agency for failing to protect millions of Californians from hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical made infamous in the movie “Erin Brockovich” for contaminating drinking water and sickening residents in the town of Hinkley, Calif.

“The court got it right. Protecting our drinking water supply from this carcinogen is critical to the health and safety of millions of Californians,” said Nicholas Morales, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “An estimated 31 million people are exposed to unsafe levels of cancer-causing hex chrome due to government inaction. Now, the department’s focus should be on setting a standard that adequately protects public health.”

Ruling from the bench, Judge Evelio Grillo directed the agency to propose a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium by the end of August 2013. Following the public comment period on the rule, the court will consider any further deadlines in light of the volume and nature of public comments.

An EWG analysis of official records from the California Department of Public Health’s water quality testing conducted between 2000 and 2011 revealed that about one-third of the more than 7,000 drinking water sources sampled were contaminated with hexavalent chromium at levels that exceed safe limits. These water sources are spread throughout 52 of 58 counties, impacting an estimated 31 million Californians.

NRDC and EWG’s suit contended that the department’s delay was unlawful and it must rapidly proceed to set a “Maximum Contaminant Level” – the maximum concentration of a chemical that is allowed in public drinking water systems – for hexavalent chromium in drinking water.  The California EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment announced a final “Public Health Goal” for hexavalent chromium in drinking water in July 2011, a preliminary step for the agency to adopt a drinking water standard. The goal was set at 0.02 parts per billion, a level that does not pose a significant health risk to people. The agency now must move quickly to set the maximum limit for hexavalent chromium as close to that safe level as feasible.

“Getting this carcinogen out of our drinking water is long overdue and today’s ruling is a critical step towards this ultimate goal.” said Renee Sharp, EWG’s Director of Research and author of several reports on hexavalent chromium. “Kids who were born the year that the movie Erin Brockovich hit the theaters weren’t even in kindergarten when the state missed its first deadline to establish a drinking water standard for hexavalent chrome. Those same kids are now about to start high school, and we still don’t have a standard on the books,”

In 2001, the California State Legislature mandated the agency adopt a standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water by January 1, 2004, giving it two years to do so. More than nine years past its legal deadline, the agency still has not even proposed a standard. Prior to today’s ruling, the agency had said it could take several more years before a final standard is completed.

Hexavalent chromium enters the drinking water supply by running off from industrial operations into surface waters or leaching from soil into groundwater.

Communities adjacent to industrial facilities using hexavalent chromium or Superfund sites, such as low income communities like Hinkley and communities of color are among those most highly exposed to hexavalent chromium pollution. People can be exposed to hexavalent chromium by drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, by inhaling it, or by exposure to contaminated soils.