California water regulators adopt nation’s first standard for ‘Erin Brockovich’ compound

More than three decades after Erin Brockovich recognized that hexavalent chromium was making residents of Hinkley, Calif., sick, state water regulators on Wednesday approved the nation’s first standard to limit the toxin’s presence in drinking water.

The California State Water Control Board voted to adopt a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 micrograms per liter — or 10 parts per billion — of hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

Hexavalent chromium — known more commonly as chromium-6 — came under the public eye in the 1990s, after Brockovich discovered that it was contaminating drinking water and making people sick in the San Bernardino County town in Central California’s Mojave Desert.

While working as a legal aid, Brockovich uncovered records that helped her identify a community contamination source: chromium-6 released by a Pacific Gas and Electric Company gas compressor. PG&E settled with residents for $333 million, but the state took years to move forward with regulatory action.

When the State Water Board first proposed the 10 parts per billion MCL two years ago, Brockovich told The Hill that this threshold was insufficient, expressing her frustration “that nothing’s changed in 30 years.”

Environmental advocates have long slammed the MCL as coming nowhere near a public health goal set by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in 2011. That target was 500 times lower than the MCL and represented a “one in one million” lifetime cancer risk as accepted by physicians.

“The Water Board has failed the people of California,” Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.

“Chromium-6 is a known carcinogen — even at exceptionally low levels,” Stoiber continued. “It has no place in drinking water. Yet tens of millions of Californians ingest this toxic chemical every day.”

Industry and business representatives likewise expressed their disapproval of the MCL, but for opposite reasons.

joint statement from the American Chemistry Council, the California Chamber of Commerce and other manufacturing and technology groups described the MCL as based on “outdated science that will undermine state and local water affordability.”

“Setting the MCL for hexavalent chromium at 10 ppb will have significant impacts on affected water providers and rate payers, including making water less affordable in economically disadvantaged communities,” the statement said.

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