09/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A New Chapter In The Erin Brockovich/Hexavalent Chromium Story

This story started in rural California with a poisoned community, energized Erin Brockovich to become an activist and gained wide public attention through the 2000 movie, Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts. An important new chapter in the story unfolded yesterday when, thanks to the work of Clean Water Action and our allies over many years, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) released a long overdue draft public health goal for Hexavalent Chromium. This is a critical step in establishing an enforceable drinking water standard in the state. A public health goal is to establish a level, based on current science, at which no health impacts would be expected from drinking water. Though OEHHA’s proposed health goal of .06 parts per billion (ppb) is the first in the nation, California is already 5 years late in establishing a drinking water standard for Hexavalent Chromium as mandated by the state legislature.

Clean Water Action’s Program Manager, Andria Ventura, has been working on water quality issues for many years. She said the release of the draft public health goal for Hexavalent Chromium is ” a huge step forward in protecting public health. An estimated 33 million Californians in 52 out of 58 counties drink from wells with Hexavalent Chromium detections. You don’t get much more important than that.”

In the early 90’s, Erin Brockovich, working with attorney Ed Masry, began her investigation into health problems in the small town of Hinkley, CA. Ultimately it was determined that the presence of Hexavalent Chromium in the drinking water was the source of the problem. A widely used industrial chemical – it has been used in producing pigments, leather tanning, electroplating, metal processing, wood preservation, and as an ingredient in alloys such as stainless steel and anticorrosion coatings—Hexavalent Chromium is the most toxic form of chromium. It has been listed on California’s Proposition 65 list as a carcinogen and reproductive toxicant. Other health impacts include acute gastroenteritis, and liver and kidney damage or failure. One important outcome of Brockovich’s work, and the subsequent lawsuits, was the passage of legislation meant to address the threat.

In 2001, the California legislature passed legislation mandating the establishment of a California drinking water standard for Hexavalent Chromium by January 2004, making the state already five years late in meeting its responsibility to protect impacted communities. A lot of public health can suffer in five years. This was largely due to a hold up in setting the public health goal, first due to a legal suit challenging OEHHA’s scientific process and then by a bureaucratic bottle neck in the upper echelons of California EPA and the Governor’s office that blocked release of the draft goal.

Once the public health goal is finalized, the Department of Public Health will set a drinking water standard, which in addition to considering the health impacts, must also take into account technical feasibility and cost.

Our primary concern now is that further delay by the state not only puts those drinking Hexavalent Chromium at risk, but delays clean up of water supplies and fails to hold polluters accountable. While we are pleased the OEHHA is now able to move ahead with finalizing a public health goal, we want to urge the Department of Public Health to expedite establishing a truly protective standard that is no higher than that goal.

Thanks, Ms. Brockovich. The work you do continues to improve our world. Let’s hope the next steps in this process move faster than the average pre-climate change glacier.