Pesticide TCP omitted from Fresno Co. water reports
For years, Fresno County has been No. 1 on a California list that you won’t find at the chamber of commerce — pesticide detections in water wells. On the latest list, the county had more than one-third of the state’s 286 detections.
But the real news is what the state leaves out of this and other annual pesticide reports, advocates for healthy drinking water say.
There is no mention of perhaps the most dangerous and widespread chemical related to pesticides in the San Joaquin Valley.
It is 1,2,3-trichloropropane, or TCP, a toxic leftover from a fumigant used decades ago to kill tiny worms called nematodes.
The contaminant is linked to cancer, and it is found in wells all over the Valley — where the main source of drinking water is wells. Many cities, including Fresno and Clovis, already are preparing lawsuits against the manufacturers of TCP.
The omission of the chemical in the annual pesticide report is another sign that the state does not take this potent contamination seriously enough, say advocates.
For one thing, the chemical is not yet regulated by the California Department of Public Health, which protects drinking water. The department says it won’t be regulated until 2014 or 2015.
But TCP is not even considered a pesticide by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. That is why it is not tracked in the annual pesticide report.
“It’s like an afterthought,” said lawyer Todd Robins, who represents cities all over the Valley in multimillion-dollar lawsuits over TCP contamination.
State pesticide regulation leaders defend their decision not to monitor TCP, saying the issue was fully discussed in the late 1990s.
The contaminant is a chemical impurity from the fumigant Telone. TCP never was registered as a pesticide, so it would not be tracked as a pesticide, said department spokeswoman Lea Brooks.
“Its industrial uses include degreaser, solvent, ingredient in paints and polymer cross-linking agent,” she wrote in an email.
Another factor in the decision not to monitor: The application of the fumigants became more efficient in the 1990s, preventing the chemicals from leaching into the groundwater, the pesticide regulation agency said.
Laurel Firestone, co-director of the advocacy group Community Water Center in Visalia, says the pesticide agency could choose to track TCP. She adds that the public health department could try to speed up the regulation process.
Firestone quotes scientists who say TCP causes cancer in laboratory animals, adding that it damages the liver and kidneys in humans.
“It’s a major problem in the groundwater,” she said. “There needs to be more urgency.”
Cities and water systems throughout the Valley are not waiting for the state to act. They have hired lawyers, such as Robins, to protect themselves from TCP contamination.
Robins’ clients include Shafter, Wasco, Delano, Lamont and Bakersfield in lawsuits against manufacturers Dow Chemical Co. and Shell Oil Co. as well as several distributors, such as Wilbur-Ellis Co.
One of Robins’ clients, the Merced County city of Livingston, last year got a settlement of $13 million in its TCP lawsuit. Other cities, including Clovis, are preparing their cases this year with other legal counsel.
The Department of Public Health is working as fast as possible on regulations for TCP, agency leaders say. The state already has a goal for healthy levels of TCP in the water.
The public health department now must set a maximum contaminant level, a process that can take many months of study, debate and review of detections, possible safe levels and associated costs.
A proposal should be available for public review sometime next year — a long wait on a dangerous chemical that the state has known about for many years already, says Firestone.
The public health department’s web page isn’t helping people enough either, say advocates of healthy drinking water. The page says “the primary possible contaminating activity” appears to be hazardous waste sites. TCP contamination was first discovered at a hazardous waste site in Southern California.
But the public health department’s website shows the majority of TCP contamination has been found in the Valley. So the primary source is really the decades-old farm fumigant, say Firestone and others.
The public health department is reviewing its website and will consider updating it, a spokeswoman in Sacramento said.
Back in the Valley, no one knows the full extent of the contamination yet, said Richard Haberman, a retired state water engineer who still works on drinking-water issues. He said many small water systems have not been tested yet, but many are very close to wells tainted with TCP.
“I think after all the water systems have been tested for this chemical, you’re going to find it is the most widespread pesticide contamination ever found in the Valley,” Haberman said.
By Mark Grossi