By Rebecca Kimitch, Staff Writer
Clean water and wilderness advocates are celebrating congressional approval Wednesday of a massive natural resources bill that provides a $61.2 million boost to local efforts to rid groundwater of dangerous contaminants.
The long-delayed legislation, now headed for the president’s desk, also gives 27,000 acres around Pleasant View Ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains, and 2 million acres nationwide, wilderness protection – the highest protection under federal law.
“I am extremely thrilled. This is a huge step forward,” said Grace Kast, executive director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority.
The Water Quality Authority will use a $50 million increase in federal funds to help remove perchlorate – a chemical in rocket fuel and fireworks – from the aquifer that lies below the San Gabriel Valley and provides drinking water to the area. The Central Basin Municipal Water District will also receive $11.2 million for groundwater cleanup.
The legislation is the first step of a two-step process to get the federal funds. It allows federal funding to be used for the cleanup; lawmakers must still actually budget the funds annually.
“Today we have taken a big step forward … each year we are going to have to be back at it … to ensure this happens,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who cosponsored the original legislation by Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas.
The federal government has already contributed approximately $79 million to the cleanup effort, estimated to cost $1 billion to complete. Additional funds have come from the state and from the parties responsible for the contamination.
Before its dangers were known, the aerospace and defense sectors freely dumped perchlorate. The San Gabriel Valley is one the nation’s largest Superfund sites in part because of this contamination.
The chemical has been found to reduce the production of thyroid hormones, which are critical for growth and brain development, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Though the Water Quality Authority does not have the federal dollars in hand, the government’s renewed commitment helps leverage “much more money” from private parties, including those responsible, by bringing them to the negotiating table, Kast said.
The legislation is part of a massive omnibus bill, consisting of more than 160 different measures, many of which designate wilderness areas across the country.
The Senate originally approved the package in January. The legislation then faced several hurdles in the House and failed in an initial vote there two weeks ago.
Some Republicans called the legislation a land grab that would prevent future domestic energy production. Other GOP lawmakers objected to the procedure under which the package was brought to vote in the House. Dreier was one of the latter. Though he has championed perchlorate clean-up, he voted against the overall bill.
The local GOP congressman objected to Democrats refusing to allow lawmakers to amend the legislation.
In a heated showdown, Dreier pushed hard for amendments related to water pumps in the San Joaquin-Sacramento river delta, domestic energy production, and disabled access to wilderness areas.
“I am strongly committed to our San Gabriel projects, but … could not support the gymnastics (Democrats) went through,” he said.
Despite the hurdles, supporters refused to let the legislation die, according to John Monsen, regional representative for the Sierra Club and San Gabriel Mountains Forever, who pushed hard for the local wilderness designation.
“Hundreds of thousands of people contacted their congress people to tell them vote for it. It really has immense public support,” he said. “We are on cloud nine.”