A. Garcia / SFVS

Victor Garza stands at the entrance to the Mission Wellfield near his home in Sylmar, which they worry could be contaminating their neighborhood. The LADWP, in charge of the site, denies any contamination.

“I personally feel the drinking water is safe. That’s the end result. It’s the process I’m more concerned about,” says Victor Garza who, with wife Rhonda, lives on Havana Avenue in Sylmar, just down the street from the Mission Wellfield.

“The process” involves work on a water project there that is causing concerns for the Garzas and other nearby residents.

At first no one paid much attention to the Mission Wellfield administered by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). But the Garzas recently began seeing trucks and workers at the site. Rhonda asked the workers about the project, but did not get a satisfactory answer. She said the LADWP didn’t give any notice about the work, either.

The Garza family, and others who attended a recent community meeting, are left feeling anxious by the lack of communication with the LADWP. The residents worry that they have been drinking and bathing in contaminated water.

They wonder if the agency is deliberately keeping them in the dark and doesn’t want them to know if there is a problem with the wells.

The residents say the LADWP hasn’t offered a direct response to their concerns. But in a written statement to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol, the LADWP indicated that “three new wells have been drilled, and are awaiting the new pumps to be dropped into the completed well casings. However, they have not been put in service yet. Of these three wells, only one is expected to be operational by next year.”

Part of the project work includes the installation of underground transmission lines along Havana Avenue, the LADWP said.

The LADWP went on to say there are two existing wells and that “only one is operable, but it is not in service at this time due to the construction onsite.”

It said the project would insure an adequate water supply for its customers.

“This community gets most its water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct Filtration Plant, and the Mission Wellfield when it is operational. In dry years the local water supply relies on imported water from the Metropolitan Water District. Once the new wells are fully operational, LADWP will pump a greater share of its adjudicated water rights for the Sylmar Basin from the Mission Wellfield, providing a better value for LADWP customers.”

LADWP admitted it issued a notice of construction “two days after the start of construction for (the work on the street), after being contacted by an area resident.” It said the department protocol for power system work such as this calls for construction notices to be disseminated “at least one week” prior to the start of work.

“This was a mistake for which LADWP accepts full responsibility. We regret the error and apologize for the inconvenience caused to area residents,” the agency said.

After not getting any answers, Rhonda says she went online and began digging up information. She didn’t like what she found.

According to a report from the California Department of Water Resources in July 2012, the LADWP proposed to construct, develop, and sample two groundwater monitoring wells within the Mission Wellfield to provide additional data on the extent of groundwater contamination affecting the operation of supply wells in the well field.

What got her attention was the report also indicated that “since 1999, trichloroethene (TCE) has been detected in the Mission Wellfield. In 2008, TCE concentrations in one of the two active wells began to exceed the California’s regulatory maximum contamination level of 5 micrograms per liter (ug/L). Recent analyses have detected TCE concentrations as high as 9 ug/L in samples from this well.”

“Additionally, in recent months, TCE concentrations in the second well have risen and been detected at levels ranging between 2 and 4 ug/L. As a result of this contamination, LADWP has not been exercising its full pumping rights in the Sylmar Basin,” the report said.

TCE is a nonflammable, colorless liquid with a somewhat sweet odor and a sweet, burning taste. It is used mainly as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts, but it is also an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers and spot removers. However, it has been found in underground water sources and many surface waters as a result of the manufacture, use, and disposal of the chemical. It is known to be carcinogenic to humans.

TCE also evaporates into the air, and that added to the Garzas’ concerns. They worry whether they’re breathing contaminated air.

The LADWP told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol in its response that “soil tests for purposes of disposal were conducted prior to the start of construction on and just outside of the Mission Wells property. These tests showed Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) levels were non-hazardous for disposal purposes in the State of California.”

“In addition, onsite VOC screening was performed at the power work area on June 29, 2017 by an industrial hygienist, which did not detect the presence of VOCs.”

The LADWP added “a photoionization detector was used to screen for VOCs in the trench where an LADWP contractor is installing underground transmission lines in the neighborhood near the facility. This measurement was taken by an LADWP industrial hygienist on 6/29/17, as an additional measure in response to the community’s concerns. The results showed that VOCs were not detected in the soil in the trench.”

Community Confrontation

Two weeks ago, approx-imately 60 residents confronted LADWP officials at a community meeting held in nearby Osceola Elementary School.

Rhonda said the agency representatives “did not deny (TCE) is toxic, but they don’t want to tell us how it’s affecting us.”

Moreover, she said, the LADWP confirmed it had not conducted an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prior to doing work at the site, as is often customary.

The department represent-atives said that, in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), “LADWP did conduct an environmental review which determined that the activities and conditions at the site would qualify for a Notice of Exemption in May 2014 (CEQA Guidelines Section 15301(b))” because “the project involves minor alteration to an existing groundwater pumping facility in order to modernize deteriorating equipment and infrastructure, and convert groundwater treatment from chlorination to chlorination in compliance with federal regulations.”

That response increased the level of anxiety for the Garzas.

“Those chemicals being disturbed, that’s what I’m worried about,” Garza said.

“Truckloads of dirt have been taken out of the site for the past year and a half. “We’re not saying the soil is contaminated, but how do we know?”

The Garza family questions if the LADWP did any air level readings in the area. They were told they had been done on the same day of the meeting, but no findings were presented.

Rhonda wonders if those measurements would be accurate, given that the LADWP would be doing its own investigation.

“The problem is they won’t tell us how many wells are active [and] if any of them are contaminated. And when we ask them if our health is going to be impacted, they never answer,” Rhonda said.

She added that they asked the LADWP if an independent study would be conducted. The agency hasn’t said yes or no.

In its response to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol, the LADWP said that, based upon its soil testing and VOC screening, “there is no indication of contamination in the soil or of pollutants being released into the air due to any of the construction activities on the site, including removal of dirt from the site.”

Cancer scare

The questions are very important to the residents here because, Garza said, there have been a number of cancer diagnosis in the area.

His father died of cancer prior to 2012. Doctors recently discovered two masses in Rhonda’s 19-year-old son’s testicles. A neighbor across the street has cancer and her daughter has masses. Another family member nearby was diagnosed with the disease. A 44-year-old resident down the street succumbed to cancer.

There is no proof that any of those cases is even remotely linked to the project. But the Garzas remain skeptical.They would like a third-party investigation to be done on the project, and for the project to halt in the meantime.

“I feel they’re not protecting the citizens,” Rhonda said. “They went in there doing whatever they want to do and not letting us know anything.”

The agency disputes this, saying the tests that have been conducted have proven again and again that there is no contamination at the site, in the air or release of any toxins that might affect those in the surrounding community.

“LADWP takes the concerns of our customers seriously and makes protecting their health our number one priority,” the agency told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.

“As it relates to this project, LADWP has done its due diligence in going above and beyond what is required by conducting multiple soil tests and VOC screenings to ensure the health and safety of construction crews working on these projects, as well as LADWP customers living in the area.”