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Flowing Waters, Many Questions


Lawsuit asks court to stop arroyo seco canyon project over water contamination concerns




July 23, 2015 - A lawsuit has been filed by two organizations to block the Arroyo Seco Canyon Project. The project, a partnership between the Arroyo Seco Foundation and the Pasadena Water & Power Department, would expand local water resources during a drought period and improve conditions for fish and wildlife in the Arroyo Seco.


Kevin Uhrich


Pasadena Star-News


On the first day of June, the Pasadena City Council gave the green light to a two-year, $4.5 million project that is expected to capture and store more fresh water than ever, restore aquatic and riparian habitats, increase trail access and create passive recreational opportunities along the Arroyo Seco Stream that flows through Hahamongna Watershed Park. In the language of the region’s Tongva-Gabrieleño Native American settlers, Hahamongna means “Flowing Waters, Fruitful Valley.”

The Arroyo Seco Canyon Project is the result of a partnership between the Pasadena Water and Power Department (PWP) and the Arroyo Seco Foundation (ASF). It is being bankrolled in large part with grant money provided by the California Integrated Regional Water Management Program, with the remainder of the funds provided by PWP. Initial conceptual design, which includes plans for constructing a lavatory on the site, removing the stream’s headworks facility, restoring water intake outlets, increasing the size of the water spreading grounds at the top of Hahamongna, and reducing the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) parking lot from 1,100 to 100 spaces, was performed by the Arroyo Seco Foundation, which secured a $3.3 million in Proposition 84 grant funds to help pay for the changes.

One month and a day after the council gave its approval the project came under fire with the filing of a lawsuit alleging it will not make the area’s water supplies any safer or more drinkable. Indeed, rain and stream water seeping into underground water basins near Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will mix with water that has been contaminated for many years, with neighboring JPL designated as an EPA Superfund toxic waste site, a fact sparsely mentioned in any of the environmental documents submitted to the council regarding the project.

According to the lawsuit filed July 2 in Los Angeles County Superior Court by the Spirit of the Sage Council, a Pasadena nonprofit grassroots coalition of environmental organizations working to protect native plants and animals and sacred lands, and Project Soliton, a nonprofit public benefit organization that seeks to empower citizens on environmental and human and civil rights issues, the project was approved by the council based on a mitigated negative declaration (MND) stating impacts posed by the concoction of poisons dumped into the site over the past several decades are being addressed and can be overcome.

“The area adjacent to JPL and south is a Superfund site,” said Leeona Klippstein of the Spirt of the Sage Council. “The EPA designated it in 1992 and they did so because the city had actually contacted them about contaminated water. It took many years before JPL actually started cleaning up the water. It’s been known for a long time that the water is contaminated, as well as that whole area.”

Stop Everything

Council approval came in its decision to formally strike down an appeal filed by Klippstein’s group and activist Hugh Bowles to a Board of Zoning Appeals decision to grant the Water and Power Department a conditional use permit (CUP), allowing repair or replacement of facilities within the Arroyo Seco Canyon area, including those damaged or destroyed by the Station Fire in 2009.

Although the council was made aware that problems with hazardous materials and other issues — noise, transportation, biological resources and recreation — were cited in an earlier environmental study of the area, it approved the MND for the project. That declaration determined that “with the incorporation of mitigation measures, these impacts would be reduced to less than significant levels,” states the council agenda for its June 1 meeting. “Impacts to all other study areas were found to be less than significant” at the project locations at 3420, 3500, 4401, and 4500 Arroyo Seco Road.

However, the Spirit of the Sage Council lawsuit states, “Among other notable omissions in the description of the environmental setting in the initial study/MND was the fact that a portion of the project is located on and adjacent to an EPA listed toxic Superfund site, and a California listed ‘Cortese’ site that is subject to an EPA cleanup and remediation order pursuant to CERCLA (the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act).”

JPL is included on the 575-entry Cortese List of contaminated sites around California, or the Hazardous Waste and Substances Sites List, also known as a California Superfund site. As of this week, JPL was still listed as an “active” Superfund site.

“The Superfund site contains not only elevated levels of perchlorate, chromium and VOCs (volatile organic compounds), but also contaminated soils, groundwater and toxic plumes cross into the project location,” the lawsuit states. Exposure to perchlorate, a rocket fuel accelerant, at high enough dosages negatively affects a person’s thyroid gland.

The Superfund site designation is mentioned briefly in the 208-page MND “and not identified in other applicable discussion of water quality and soil contamination,” the suit states.

The two groups suing the city are demanding that approval of the project be rescinded and that a full environmental impact report be prepared. It also asks a judge to prohibit the city from accepting grant money from Proposition 84 funds until it is determined that it complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Proposition 84, the Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act, is a $5.38 billion resource and water bond approved by voters in 2006.

Tim Brick, executive director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, said much work has been done by JPL and the city over the past several years to clean up the mess made by JPL in the Hahamongna Watershed Park area. He is convinced the contamination poses no threat to park-goers or city water customers.

Steve Slaten, the project manager on the JPL cleanup and treatment program, seemed to validate Brick’s assertions. He testified twice in relation to the project. “There are no JPL chemicals in the arroyo at the surface. We have a groundwater cleanup project in which we have chemicals in the deep groundwater, several hundred feet below the surface, but there is no pathway to the surface. So no, JPL chemicals are not at the surface on the arroyo,” Slaten said. “We’ve tested all along JPL at the surface to make sure there were no chemicals from JPL in the arroyo.”

But is there a chance that the water the city hopes to capture in order to recharge local wells will be contaminated? Not really, Slaten said.

“Water comes down from the mountains and is diverted a mile or more upstream from JPL to a pipeline over to the spreading basins, so no, that’s clean water from the mountains,” Slaten said. Furthermore, he said, “Surface water in the arroyo even further down from JPL has no chemicals from JPL.”

The Way It Was

According to the negative declaration, the 181-acre JPL campus, owned by NASA and operated by Caltech, has 138 buildings and ancillary structures, including 19 underground storage tanks, immediately west of the Arroyo Seco in the city of La Cañada Flintridge. JPL generates about 2,204 pounds of hazardous waste per year, which is disposed of off-site, the document states.

That’s a far cry from how things used to be. “Past waste handling activities at JPL involved the disposal of waste solvents, solid rocket fuel propellants, cooling tower chemicals, sulfuric acid, Freon, mercury, and chemical laboratory wastes into on-site seepage pits, settling chambers, and dumps,” the document explains. “These waste-handling activities have led to soil and groundwater contamination, such that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and perchlorate have been detected in local wells east and southeast of the JPL campus.”

The groundwater contamination is located beneath a portion of the JPL campus and has traveled east and southeast of the campus, according to the negative declaration.

“This contamination has affected four water wells of the PWP in the Monk Hill Subbasin and two water wells of the Lincoln Avenue Water Company (LAWC),” the document states.

“The nearest groundwater monitoring wells to Area 3 of the Project site include MW-3 (deep multiport monitoring well) and MW-9 (shallow monitoring well),” states the MND.

Area 3 of the project is where the JPL east parking lot and four existing spreading basins are located, as well as sedimentation basins. Here spreading basins will be expanded and a restroom and a guard station will be built.

Improvements proposed in Area 1 include habitat restoration along the stream channel and construction of a new nature trail and a rest area/picnic area, along with demolition of the existing headworks structure on the Arroyo Seco. And in Area 2 new stream diversion and water intake structures will be located and improvements made to the damaged portion of the Gabrielino Trail access road.

In Area 3, states the MND, “The depths to groundwater contamination at MW-3 are over 200 feet below the ground surface. A number of studies and investigations under a work plan have been completed and a removal action plan is being implemented that includes three water treatment facilities to remove perchlorate and VOCs from the groundwater,” the document states. “The Monk Hill Treatment System (located southeast of Area 3) removes VOCs and perchlorate from four city wells (Arroyo Well, Well 52, Ventura Well, and Windsor Well) located in and near Area 3.”

“The lawsuit wasn’t the first time those issues were raised. They were raised before the hearing officer many months ago and they were dealt with specifically,” Brick said. “Candidly, I don’t want to discuss the issues involved in the lawsuit, but frankly, the issue has been studied. Let’s leave it there.”

Funding Limbo

Keith Wallace, senior engineer with the California Department of Water Resources and head of the Division of Integrated Regional Water Management’s financial assistance branch, said he could not speak directly to allegations made in the lawsuit. But Wallace did say that the Arroyo Seco request was part of $25.6 million in Proposition 84 grant funds allocated to 13 projects scattered throughout Los Angeles County.

He also explained how the process works, saying “we defer to the local agencies for implementation of projects. It’s really an emphasis on having the local agencies run and implement their own projects. … We review their proposals and determine whether or not the project has merit based on their proposals and recommend funding. When the projects progress, they provide us with updates, reports and also invoices and we can follow the progress of the project that way. But it is still up to the local agencies to develop the projects and implement them. How they pertain to CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), or any other environmental compliance, it’s still up to them. We follow state law and we expect the local agencies to do the same.

“In a case like this,” he said, “where there are [legal] challenges, we withhold funding. We don’t provide any grant reimbursement until those challenges have been resolved.”

“Even if they do get more water, the water they will be getting out there would be tainted. It’s not safe to drink,” Klippstein insisted.

“How come they can go to Pluto and they can’t clean up this watershed?” she asked of JPL.




Arroyo Seco Foundation, 570 W. Avenue 26 #450, Los Angeles, CA 90065-1011
PO Box 91622, Pasadena, CA 91109-1622 (323) 405-7326