L.A. River Poisoned by Toxic PCBs

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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028 

L.A. River Poisoned by Toxic PCBs

Santa Susana Likely Suspect but Water Board Withholding Documents


Washington, DC — The mouth of the Los Angeles River has levels of a long-banned pollutant several times above health limits, but no source has been officially named. For years, the staff of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board has had information identifying the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, one of the nation’s most polluted sites which sits atop the headwaters of the L.A. River, as the likely culprit but refuses to release that information, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Production of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds was banned in the U.S. in 1979. PCBs are highly potent carcinogens, ingestion of which can result in “acute lethality,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. They do not break down in the environment for long periods, cycling back and forth between air, water, and soil. PCBs also can be carried long distances. Santa Susana is 50 miles from the mouth of the L.A. River as it enters the Pacific.

PCBs were frequently used at Santa Susana during decades of rocket testing and other military research, as acknowledged in state environmental documents. While the water pollution permit for Santa Susana prohibits the discharge of PCBs, PEER and allied groups charge that the permit has failed to meet that standard due to its lack of appropriate detection limits.

Water Board staff has long suspected these problems and, according to confidential interviews with PEER, have conducted analyses that point to Santa Susana as the source of profound PCB pollution of the L.A. River. On December 2, 2022, PEER submitted a formal public records request for those documents.

During the ensuing months, the Water Board has only released documents of tangential relevance. In its response to public comments published last Friday, Water Board

Staff admitted that after more than nine months –

“[T]here are still significant records to review to responsiveness and privilege (e.g., attorney-client, attorney work-product, deliberative, etc.) Since the Public Records Act request was received, the Los Angeles Water Board has provided non-privileged responsive documents on a rolling basis.”

PEER has asked that any hearing on renewing the water pollution permit be postponed until these documents have been produced. That request was rejected, and the Water Board hearing on renewing Santa Susana’s water pollution permit is slated for today.

“The Water Board should get to the bottom of the PCB issue before they plow forward with another multi-year permit,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the prior Water Board Chair until mid-2022 was completely unaware of the PCB issue. “We doubt that the staff have shared these documents with the Water Board members themselves.”

After hearing troubling testimony on February 10, 2023, the Water Board tabled further consideration of renewing the permit for a week. Then, on February 15th, the Board canceled the follow-up meeting indefinitely, saying –

“[I]n light of the significant public testimony and Los Angeles Water Board’s desire to fully consider that testimony, the Los Angeles Water Board is postponing the public hearing for its continued deliberation on this matter to a future date.”

“The fundamental problems with this permit in February remain unaddressed,” added Ruch, noting that the current permit expired in 2015 and has remained in force for nearly three and a half years. “It is not just PCBs, but roughly 90% of the toxic chemicals detected at Santa Susana are exempted from enforceable limits in today’s proposed permit.”


Read summary of problems with Santa Susana permit

View the PCB vulnerability analysis for Santa Susana

Look at the similar regulatory blind spot for PFAS 

Revisit sweetheart Santa Susana cleanup deal

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