Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2021

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Needles, Calif.

Heading into Memorial Day it would be hard to find a more blissful snapshot of holiday pleasure than boating on the Colorado River between Lake Mead and Lake Havasu.

At Topock Marsh, where Arizona gives California a reluctant kiss at old Route 66, birds dive into acre after acre of protected wetlands. On the river itself, teens drink beer and take turns jumping from a graffitied footing of the Interstate 40 bridge. Mothers and toddlers with chubby pale legs wade from sandy banks into surprisingly bright blue water.

And far from the sunshine, deep below ground, slumbering on the California side, a monster lies. Nobody is quite sure how big it is. Maybe 2,400 feet long and at least half that wide. At some points it is shallow, not far beneath the gravel. In others it is so deep that its tongue creeps along prehistoric bedrock. The only way to tell what shape it is taking, when it stretches or contracts, is drill deep and test. To those whose job it is to vanquish the thing, it is known simply as "The Plume."

The Plume is a vast cloud of ground water contaminated with Chromium VI, an industrial chemical made famous by the film "Erin Brockovich."

Yet out on the river, in the hazy light of day, there are no warnings that The Plume may now have not only reached the edge of the Colorado River but may be lurking beneath it. The rhythm of river life seems uninterrupted as a teenager at the marina restaurant recites the daily specials.

It requires a guided tour to find sensors tracking The Plume. But they're there. Tucked among the tamarisk and mesquite on the California side are dozens of well caps. These are scarcely taller than a road cone. Capped heads of buried cylinders really.

There is also a certain sound. Far lower than the whining of power boats and Jet Skis, it is a deeper industrial pulse. This comes from the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. plant, where motorized pumps work 24/7 to reverse the natural pull of ground water toward the river in dry season. This is the sound of the effort to pull The Plume away from the river and back toward its lair in Bat Cave Wash.

Nobody wants The Plume in the river.

Fifty miles downstream from The Plume are intakes for the Colorado River Aqueduct and Central Arizona Project, the water canals supplying 22 million people in Southern California and Arizona.

(Nevadans, exhale. The Las Vegas intakes are upriver at Lake Mead.)

If this were a Steven Soderbergh film starring Julia Roberts, it's a safe bet that The Plume would be the dark secret of PG&E, and its agents at its gas treatment facility in Needles would be covering up the disaster that they had wrought.

Yes, it's a fact, a PG&E spokesman says. PG&E begat The Plume when it employed Chromium VI as an anti-corrosive agent in the coolant system of its nearby plant between 1951 and 1964. In those days it was legal and standard.

The company literature reads the same way, with a slightly exasperated apology: We're sorry, but that was then, and then was different.

When in the middle of the last century it brought the Texas-to-San Francisco pipeline through the Mojave Desert, PG&E needed to build what were called "compressor stations" to stop and repressurize the gas to keep moving it north. This required two PG&E stations in the desert. The first went on the Colorado River at the Topock-Needles intersection on the California side, just above a dry stream bed called Bat Cave Wash. A second went farther west, in Hinkley, near Barstow.

Compressing gas is a hot process. The Mojave Desert is a hot place. So water cooling systems were installed, and following the Better Living Through Chemistry wisdom of the day, Chromium VI was added to the water as an anti-corrosive agent. At Topock, wastewater was then dumped in a dry stream bed next to the plant.

More than 100 million gallons of wastewater laced with Chromium VI went into Bat Cave Wash before dumping of untreated water was stopped in the 1960s. The damage would take years to register. The problem became apparent at the Hinkley plant first because it spread through wells used for drinking and irrigation. By 1993 Erin Brockovich had a $333 million case against PG&E for more than 600 Hinkley residents who had been sickened by the chemical.

Topock was different again, explains Curt Russell, the project manager brought in by PG&E to lead the cleanup of the Topock site. "The ground water here isn't potable. It's too salty."

Russell is the man who studded the landscape with wells. He's trained as a biologist and chemist, but his real passion seems to be engineering. He's here in Topock because sucking The Plume from the ground, neutralizing its toxic effect, blocking its path, or all three, will take a man who knows maps, wells, pumps and chemical washes. The smallest mention of any of these cause Russell's eyes to brighten and voice to fill.

In another aquifer, The Plume might have broken down, he explains. That's what Russell thinks happened at another PG&E gas compressing station in California, this one in the Central Valley, where Chromium VI was also used, but neutralized by organic-rich top soil.

Two tests in 1995 at Topock wells dispelled any wishfulness that the same thing would happen in the Mojave Desert. Cupped on bedrock in a gravel wash, The Plume was persisting nicely.

PG&E called in the relevant regulator, the California Toxic Substances Control Department. It went to Watson Gin, deputy director for hazard waste management.

So began a shotgun marriage between the gas company and regulator called a "Corrective Action Consent Agreement." Under this, PG&E would pay and Gin's agency would supervise.

Their job: Do whatever it takes to keep The Plume out of the river while planning how to remove it from Bat Cave Wash.

The first problem was visualizing the skulking menace. "You can't start looking at solutions until you have a good handle on what the problem is," Gin says.

PG&E began digging wells. There were already 11 on site. Eleven became 18, 18 became 38 and so on until now there are more than 100.

What happened next might have been a case of early jubilation over preliminary results, or a case of false reassurances. A succession of testing reports leading up to 2004 showed The Plume appearing to near the river, but downplayed danger. First the worst concentration was 600 feet from the river. Then notice after notice from 1997 to 2003 the reassurance was the same: It hadn't reached the river.

When a well only 60 feet from the river began giving Chromium VI readings at many times the limit allowed for drinking water, the reassurances rang hollow.

The new worry was potentially many times the scale of the Hinkley disaster, where hundreds said they were sickened by Chromium VI from ground water.

Here was the potential for The Plume to reach millions.

Stopping it has involved what occasionally seems to Gin and Russell like every agency with an acronym.

The compressor station lies at the California-Arizona border, but abuts federal lands. So in addition to Gin's group, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Arizona's Environmental Quality Department were called in, as were agents from the U.S. Geological Survey and Interior Department's bureaus of Fish and Wildlife, Indian Affairs, Land Management and Reclamation.

The Indian tribes of the Lower Colorado River had vested interests, not least in water rights. So did the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest water wholesaler in the United States.

As it turned out, each had different ideas about what needed to be done.

Metropolitan wanted everything studied, not least the construction of a subterranean barrier wall sealing off Bat Cave Wash from the river.

Arizona was not only worried about The Plume affecting the river water, which would be carried to Phoenix and Tucson, but about it traveling under the river and contaminating ground water in the river village of Topock, which, like Hinkley, uses well water for drinking.

PG&E and Russell are pushing for injecting The Plume with sugar water, forcing a microbiological change in the soil that will remove the oxygen, causing the Chromium VI to change into a more benign form. That will be part of the discussion about the "Final Remedy."

In the meantime, Gin's department called for stepped up pumping. The plan: a battle with gravity. Pumping started at 20 gallons per minute, then 40. By pumping nearly 140 gallons per minute, they would pull The Plume away from the river. To speed disposal of waste, a treatment plant would be built on site to clean the water and segregate the waste.

The plant was completed in nine months flat, Russell says. "Give us a chance and we rock and roll." But it then sat still for a month as yet another stakeholder had a problem.

The plant, the Fort Mojave Indian tribe said, sat at an intersection of its most sacred site, the Topock Maze, where spirits of the dead may see the places of their birth, their life and the path to their afterlife through the Needles mountains.

The tribe had let the railroad come through in the 1880s, Russell explains, then PG&E in the 1950s, the California Transportation Department in the 1960s, and this plant was the last straw. It sued PG&E, Gill's department and the Metropolitan Water District, which owned the site of the new plant.

In a settlement brokered by PG&E, the defendants secured the right to operate the plant until another measure to keep The Plume from the river could be found. After that, they pledged to remove the plant and sell the land to the tribe. Russell now serves as docent for the Fort Mojave tribe, respectfully, almost reverently reciting its lore.

It turns out that no-trespassing signs are not there to protect his wells from hikers, or hikers from the The Plume. They are there to protect the stonework of the Topock Maze. Ignore them and PG&E security firm will soon turn you around.

No one could ask for a better steward for sacred stones. However, hundreds of miles away, a tiny woman is less concerned with pathways for the dead than she is water for the living. And after seeing the most recent modeling about the progress of The Plume, Debra Man, chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Water District, has also gone on the war path.

Man is small - 5 feet maybe - with a voice so girlish that she could dub a cartoon. The voice is the reason that fans suspect the Stanford-educated engineer narrowly missed the general manager position. But only a fool would underestimate her, thinks Adan Ortega Jr., a former vice president of the district. "She kicks ass," he says.

This month, Man endured her last reassurance that The Plume was under control. On May 17 she bused Metropolitan directors, including the board chairman, to the Topock plant.

On their return, the letters demanding action started going out to every agency, every state, everyone with an interest in protecting the river.

"If you read concern, you are right," she says crisply. "We are concerned." As Man sees it, they've been patient enough. That patience ended when the site team reported the hits from the well 60 feet from the river and recent modeling that indicated The Plume "may" have traveled beneath the river.

"May" is all they know. They have only started placing the wells under the river.

Mention the PG&E conviction that even if The Plume did reach the river bed - PG&E modeling shows the plume beginning to creep far below it - the Chromium VI would be transformed by the silt lining, or diluted to such minute levels as to be benign, and she invites you to let a gas company set your water standard. "I think that's their perspective," she says. "As a water agency, we want to eliminate it as even a possibility."

She's interested in the sugar-water cure, but not convinced, just as Russell and PG&E don't seem to think a wall driven to bedrock will work (or get past the Fort Mojave tribe).

What sounds like a Monopoly-board war between giant utilities is something else. It is mind-set. One sells something that you use, another sells something that you ingest. While PG&E is doing its utmost to clean up what it calls a "historical" accident and to right equally historical wrongs to the Fort Mojave, Man is straining to look into the future. Her job is to expect, meet and surpass what she clearly sees as a coming standard for drinking water.

This is changing.

The EPA classified Chromium VI, also known as hexavalent chromium, as a carcinogen in 1991, as an inhalant. There was and remains disagreement about the health threat from hexavalent chromium in water. As such, there isn't a specific maximum contaminant level set for it by state or federal regulators. There is only one for total chromium.

Now, total chromium is another story. While Chromium VI is an industrial chemical, Chromium III is one of the most common naturally occurring elements in the Earth's crust. In limited doses, it's even good for us.

To make matters more confusing, the maximum contaminant level for total chromium varies. The EPA sets it at 100 parts per billion (which Nevada observes) while its counterparts in California and at the World Health Organization favor the more conservative 50 parts per billion.

Nobody in water can find this comforting. Man lighted a fire under her board by pointing out that the California environmental health hazard assessment office had a look at the scientific literature, suggested that Chromium VI might indeed be carcinogenic in water and recommended a maximum level for drinking water of 0.2 parts per billion.

Many lab mice will go the way of lab mice before there is a final ruling.

In the meantime, back at the Topock Compressor Station, Curt Russell keeps running the pumps to hold The Plume from the river.

Slowly declining Chromium VI levels in the area, leading to what they suspect is the finger under the river, reassure him that it's working.

How far they decline when the river increases its seasonal pull on The Plume , as the Bureau of Reclamation lowers releases from the dams upstream , remains to be seen.

Yet through sheer geekiness, Russell also inspires confidence. Protocols at the treatment plant couldn't be tighter. "We've got 4-inch pipes inside 8-inch pipes and leak detecting along the length," he says.

Perfectionism reads plainly at surface level. Restaurants with A-ratings are dirtier than this toxic waste disposal operation.

What concerns Man is that Western water supply might have to go through a similar process for which best techniques, cost and water loss rates are by no means clear. The word unprecedented comes to mind.

Earlier this year, two slant wells were driven 200 and 300 feet deep from the California shore to beneath the center of the river to test for contamination . "None has been found," Russell says.

As water-skiers course by in the coming months, grinning through the spray, they may not notice three more slant wells being drilled on the Arizona side. May they keep grinning. So far, the water churning in their wake has tested clear of Chromium VI.

As to what is happening beneath, The Plume remains. In a story of mythic figures in an epic and holy place, its fate and ours will be up to Man, engineers and gods.

Sun reporter Mary Manning contributed to this story.