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Report reveals traces of chemical in area water supply

Valley drinking water may contain traces of a chemical made famous by an Oscar-winning movie, but don’t expect the sequel to “Erin Brockovich” to start filming here soon.

Water officials are dismissing as alarmist the findings of a national environmental organization that found hexavalent chromium in the drinking supplies of 31 cities across the country, including Las Vegas.

In a report released Monday, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group said it found 0.06 parts per billion of the chemical, also known as chromium-6, in tap water delivered by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

But the valley’s wholesale water supplier can’t confirm the finding, because its laboratory equipment can’t detect chromium-6 in concentrations below 1 part per billion.

“It’s hard to get your mind around numbers that small,” said water authority spokesman J.C. Davis. “If one part per billion is a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, this would be one drop in almost 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

Even if the chemical is in the water as the Environmental Working Group says, “the public here has no cause for concern either from this report or from these trace levels,” Davis said.

“This is more of a political posturing move than it is an actual scientific study,” he said of the report.

As fans of Julia Roberts know, the potential hazards of hexavalent chromium contamination first came to light in 1993, when Erin Brockovich helped build a now-famous class action lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for polluting the water supply of Hinkley, Calif.

The suit eventually led to a $333 million settlement and a big-screen treatment that landed Roberts a best-actress Oscar.

Davis said the Environmental Protection Agency has set limits on “chromium as a family,” but it has not established a separate drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium.

The federal agency is conducting human health studies to determine if chromium-6 warrants specific regulation and at what level.

Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, said its time for EPA officials to act.

“Every single day, pregnant mothers in Norman, Oklahoma, school children in Madison, Wisconsin, and many other Americans are drinking water laced with this cancer-causing chemical,” Sutton said in written statement. “If the EPA required local water utilities to test for hexavalent chromium, the public would at least know if it was present in their local water.”

Brockovich has joined the working group’s call for action.

“It is sometimes difficult to understand why I still have to warn the public about the presence of hexavalent chromium in drinking water 23 years after my colleagues and I first sounded the alarm,” she said .

“This report underscores, in fairly stark terms, the health risks that millions of Americans still face because of water contamination.”

According to the working group, California is the only state that requires specific testing for chromium-6.

Last year, California proposed a public health goal of 0.06 parts per billion for chromium-6 and may become the first state to establish a limit for the chemical.

Davis said a public health goal is just that — a goal, usually set as close to zero as possible. “It is not the same as a limit. It’s not even close,” he said.

This is not the first time the Environmental Working Group has criticized water quality in Las Vegas. A year ago, the group released a report that ranked Las Vegas’ drinking water 98th out of 100 cities studied because it contains a “chemical cocktail” of regulated and unregulated substances.

Davis said EWG seems more interested in scaring people than really helping them. The group’s references to what happened in Hinkley are proof of that.

Davis said the levels of hexavalent chromium at the source of the plume in Hinkley were on the order of 9 parts per million, roughly 150,000 times more concentrated than the 0.06 parts per billion the working group said it found here.

In the meantime, the valley’s drinking water continues to meet federal standards for all regulated substances including total chromium, which the EPA limits at 100 parts per billion.

According to the authority’s latest water quality report, the only chromium found in the valley’s water last year came from groundwater wells used to meet peak demand in the summer. The maximum level detected was 6 parts per billion.

EPA reports that no U.S. utilities are currently in violation of the total chromium limit, which the agency says includes chromium-6.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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