Lomita water tank

Lomita Mayor Henry Sanchez stands on the steps leading to the top of the water storage tank at the southern end of Cypress Street in Lomita on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. Officials recently shut down the 5.2-million gallon water tank after the cancer-causing chemical Benzene was found in the water supply. (Photo by Scott Varley, Daily Breeze/SCNG)

Lomita has stopped using a 5 million-gallon emergency reservoir that blends local groundwater and more expensive imported water, another fallout from the discovery of cancer-causing chemicals in the water supply, prompting renewed criticism from some residents that the $13 million project doesn’t work as designed.

An annual state test at the end of May found the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen, in groundwater at levels almost three times higher than is allowed in California, prompting Lomita to shut down its well and water treatment facility.

That, in turn, required the reservoir atop hilly Cypress Avenue — which serves about two-thirds of the city’s 4,242 water users, in the area generally north of Pacific Coast Highway — to be drained. The emptying of the reservoir, intended to provide an emergency supply during a natural disaster, has resurrected grumblings about the cost and effectiveness of what remains the most expensive capital expenditure in city history.

That’s because the project has been plagued with problems. Water delivered to households from the Cypress Avenue Water Treatment Facility, for example, has a long history of taste and odor issues. That’s one reason the city has a dedicated website — LomitaWater.com — devoted to offering solutions to residents with questions and concerns about what comes out of their taps.

And the city is still paying about $400,000 annually to retire the outstanding $6.5 million debt that remains on the 10-year-old facility it isn’t currently using, municipal officials acknowledged.

“The residents were sold the reservoir on the mistaken belief that in a major emergency, we would have a multi-day supply of water already in our city for firefighting and drinking,” resident and real estate agent George Kivett wrote on local social media site NextDoor.com. “Basically, the tank doesn’t work as planned.”

On Wednesday, Sept. 4, Kivett reiterated his displeasure at the city’s ongoing water problems.

“It’s a disappointment,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s never really lived up to expectations and now it’s empty.”

The water well and treatment facility were also intended to reduce the city’s reliance on more expensive imported water. But the city, since shutting down the well, has upped its use of imported water.

Municipal officials, for their part, maintain the reservoir is empty only temporarily and will be refilled when normal operations resume.

But it’s unclear when that will occur.

State officials are currently probing the source of the contamination and will eventually decide whether a proposed $3 million filtration system at the Cypress Avenue Water Production Facility will reduce the benzene levels.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has identified three potential sources of the carcinogen near the water treatment facility, but has yet to confirm whether any are responsible for the chemical ending up in Lomita’s groundwater.

The filtration system, already in the works before the benzene contamination was discovered, was initially designed to solve the persistent aesthetic complaints from residents over water quality that have dogged the production facility since it came online.

“We’ve had questions from our residents for some time about taste and odor (issues) primarily,” City Manager Ryan Smoot said. “Turns out, the project we’re already designing is the best practice, the recommended treatment for benzene as well.”

And that, at least financially, might actually help the city.

“The good news for us is because we’re now treating a primary health and safety concern, we may qualify for grant funding for this,” Smoot said. “So if we can kill two birds with one stone and not have it cost us a dollar, that’s a win for us.”

The issue with benzene in Lomita’s drinking water is separate from the contaminated groundwater discovered beneath some homes in the community, which has emanated from an industrial site in neighboring Torrance, near Zamperini Field.

A second investigation, by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, is also under way to analyze the extent of that contamination. Experts have said they do not believe the two, essentially at opposite ends of the 2-square-mile city, are related.

Leaking underground oil storage tanks at three locations near the water production facility could be sources of the contamination, state officials said.

Those include underground tanks at the Lomita Sheriff’s Station on Narbonne Avenue, about 450 feet from the well. A work plan was to be submitted Aug. 30.

The other two sites are a Shell gas station, also on Narbonne Avenue, that was formerly operated by ExxonMobil, and a CVS Pharmacy on the former site of a car wash.

All the investigations are in their very early stages and are yet to begin, state officials said.

Groundwater contamination from abandoned or leaking underground gas tanks is relatively common because clean-up costs can reach as high as $1.5 million, federal EPA officials said.

About 400 tanks in California have been cleaned-up since 2013.

Aesthetic water quality issues, meanwhile, became apparent as soon as Lomita opened the Cypress Avenue facility almost 10 years ago.

It was shut down just two months after it opened when residents complained about the taste and odor of water, Mayor Henry Sanchez recalled.

Initially, 100% well water was used. But the city began blending the well water with imported water to make it more palatable.

In 2013, the state warned the city that a proposed water blend had a level of contaminants above the recommended range “for consumer acceptance.”

A “terrible design” of the storage tank exacerbated water quality problems as well, Sanchez said, which also had residents complaining about damaged appliances and pinhole leaks in household pipes.

Yet now, after finally believing they were on the verge of a solution to the longtime water quality issues, the city has now found itself waiting on whether state officials will approve the filtration system for the benzene contamination, too

But Smoot, in a recent interview, rejected the contention that the water production facility has turned out to be an expensive dud, instead calling it “prudent” investment by the City Council.

“It’s more than a storage tank, it’s more than a treatment facility,” he said. “The Cypress Water Production Facility is what will allow this city to be independent of imported water in the future.”

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