Case Studies

Achieving EPA Superfund Status for Orange County Groundwater Cleanup Project

Coastline View

The groundwater under multiple cities across Orange County has been polluted by decades of manufacturing.

The Orange County Groundwater Basin (“Basin”) is the primary water supply and storage area used by the Orange County Water District (OCWD) to serve 2.4 million residents across 22 cities. Remediating the contaminated plumes is a crucial priority for the OCWD.

The Background

The Larson team of Scott A. Sommer, Stephen G. Larson, and Paul A. Rigali have been representing OCWD for years on the environmental regulatory issues for the cleanup of the Orange County North Basin and South Basin. Our efforts include counseling OCWD on completing a remedial investigation and feasibility study and having the sites listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund National Priorities List (NPL).

Not only is determining the level of and containing the pollution a painstaking and time-consuming task, it is also extremely expensive. As manager of the Basin, OCWD performed extensive groundwater investigations at its own cost to assess the area and depth of the contaminant plume. Achieving status on the NPL, which makes the site eligible for cleanup money and other federal aid, is a critical way to tackle a groundwater cleanup. The NPL includes the nation’s most serious uncontrolled or abandoned releases of contamination, and it serves as the basis for prioritizing EPA Superfund cleanup funding and enforcement actions.

OCWD found that the North Basin is heavily impacted by multiple industrial operations that released solvents and other contaminants to soil, which further migrated into a five-mile-long, two-mile-wide plume in the shallow and principal aquifers of the Basin. Several public water wells which draw from the principal aquifer ceased operations due to the contamination, and the continuing downward and lateral migration of contaminants threatens many more.

In 2014, OCWD began discussing the North Basin’s contamination with EPA. We participated in the negotiation of an administrative settlement for a remedial investigation and feasibility study between EPA and OCWD, effective October 14, 2016. In August 2017, the state of California agreed with OCWD to place the North Basin on the NPL and granted $1.7 million of Prop 1 money to assist with developing the remedial study. In conjunction with counseling OCWD through achieving NPL status, we continued to pursue litigation to compel responsible parties to pay for OCWD’s costs to address the contamination that escaped from the parties’ properties.

Achieving NPL Status

Years of skillful litigation and counseling paid off when, on Sept. 1, 2020, the EPA announced the addition of the North Basin site to the NPL. The full cost of the cleanup could exceed $100 million, and now with Superfund NPL status, the EPA could compel anyone who might have polluted the groundwater basin to help pay. Without Superfund designation, the cost of cleanup would continue to fall to OCWD and other businesses.

“By placing the Orange County North Basin Site on the National Priorities List, EPA is showing its commitment to clean up groundwater contamination in northern Orange County. Today’s action is a big step forward in protecting an essential drinking water source for generations to come.”

— John Busterud, EPA Regional Administrator

Larson’s guidance provided to OCWD on federal environmental laws and a multi-agency approach involving EPA and regional water boards paves the way for cleanup and cost-recovery litigation under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The feasibility study of the North Basin is estimated to be completed in 2022, and the cleanup of the South Basin will not be far behind.

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