The president of Tulare’s Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has resigned following a dispute over how to treat dangerous contamination of Tulare’s drinking water.
Jim Pennington–who joined the BPU in 2016 and was the sole board member remaining after a purge of the five-member commission in 2017–says he chose to resign following a contentious meeting with Mayor Jose Sigala, Vice Mayor Dennis Mederos and City Manager Rob Hunt over the city’s approach to eliminating the carcinogen trichloropropane (TCP) from Tulare’s drinking water. The meeting took place in April, and Pennington resigned in May.
‘Asking Tough Questions’
According to Pennington, his experience and knowledge of BPU business, and the questions it caused him to ask, ultimately led to his decision to step down. He also cited a lack of support from Hunt. The clash with city leadership, he said, came after he began researching alternatives to the city’s plan to remove TCP from water drawn by seven contaminated wells.
“I had a little knowledge, so I was the dangerous one,” Pennington said. “Rob (Hunt) didn’t support me at all. When I asked the staff for things and started asking tough questions, they had a surprise meeting and started chewing my butt for asking questions.”
Mayor Sigala, however, said the quality of Pennington’s governance of the BPU was questionable.
“There was concern with his leadership, and (I) pretty much had to let him go,” Sigala said. “I think … Jim (Pennington) knows why, he knows what the concerns were.”
Sigala declined to comment further on Pennington’s resignation, citing a need to protect Pennington’s privacy. He called the dispute “a personnel-kind of issue.”
Lack of Information
Pennington says his independent attempts to research ways of removing TCP–an widely-used insecticide found to be a harmful groundwater contaminant at even small concentrations–from the city’s water supply led to a clash with staff at City Hall, and eventually the “surprise” meeting and his resignation.
“You’re supposed to trust the staff and ask questions on their information,” Pennington said. “We’re not allowed to investigate on our own.”
Pennington’s unilateral fact-finding regarding TCP and subsequent questioning of staff over the issue, Sigala says, ran counter to how the BPU is intended to operate.
“I think the Board of Public Utilities, if you read the charter, any initiative or action has to come from the majority,” he said. “One individual is not the majority.”
Pennington defended his actions, saying the BPU members were not being presented with complete information by staff at City Hall.
“Then you don’t get answers,” he said. “All you get is their version of the story.”
Pennington also claims the city has voided contracts made by past BPU members without consulting the current BPU membership. City staff, he said, relies on the current membership being ignorant of the body’s past agreements and decisions in order to influence the decisions they are making now.
“You only know what the staff tells you. You don’t know what happened before,” he said. “The void has and is going to continue to cost the city money.”
The city, Pennington says, further usurped the BPU’s authority when it told state officials filters would be used to address the TCP problem before the BPU had made its final decision.
“We got ourselves committed to a direction without the Board’s approval,” he said.
State Deadline Looms
At the heart of the issue is a state mandate requiring Tulare to make its drinking water TCP-free no later than May of 2021. After settlement of a recent class-action lawsuit against the makers of TCP, Tulare received a payout of $16 million to decontaminate its polluted water wells. The two available approaches to curing the problem are drilling new wells or adding filters to the city’s existing wells.
Support staff for the BPU recommended the use of massive granular activated carbon (GAC) filters as the solution. At its meeting on July 18, the BPU voted to purchase up to 18 GAC filter housings for use on the city’s TCP-contaminated wells. The purchase order authorized by the BPU to cover the cost was $2,959,808.98.
At the same meeting, the BPU commissioners also elected Chris Harrell as Pennington’s replacement as president. Renee Soto filled the seat left vacant by Pennington’s departure.
Purchasing the filter units in bulk should provide a savings for the city in the long-term, as well as helping ensure the city meets the May 2021 deadline, according to Jim Funk, the city’s project manager.
Picking the Best Fix
Yet before voting to approve the purchase, the BPU commissioners questioned whether drilling new wells could be the more appropriate solution to the city’s TCP problem.
“There’s been some controversy concerning the approach the city is taking to mitigate TCP in our water,” said BPU Vice Chair Howard Stroman. “There have been some individuals who suggest drilling new wells instead of treating the existing wells would be an appropriate way to go.”
The cost of drilling a new well and equipping it is in the neighborhood of $1 million. The city would need to replace seven wells.
The GAC filter system will require maintenance and periodic replacement of the charcoal at a cost of more than $100,000 per unit, and that–according to Tulare resident Charles Ritchie, who opposes the filtering solution–will lead to a heavy uptick in the rate the city charges users for water.
“Treating TCP with filters is going to raise the rates by 50%,” he said. “They’re going to spend their $16 million in cleanup settlement funds and not address the problem.”
Ritchie also says the filtering solution does not solve other costly problems with the city’s water supply, including a declining pumping volume at some wells and decay of aging infrastructure.
Only Sure Method
Funk, however, maintains using GAC filters is the only way to be certain TCP is removed from the water supply.
“To take a well that you know production, that you know the constituent–and TCP happens to be one of them–and we’re going to spend this money to treat it, it seems more of a guaranteed method,” he said. “I just think with the risk of drilling test wells and going down that path, I think the city is much better off to spend the money where it knows production and the water quality issues.”
Drilling new wells, Funk says, is too risky in light of the looming state deadline to solve the issue.
“We don’t have a great knowledge of underground aquifers and that we can go to this point and it’s going to be a good well or we go to that point and it’s going to be a bad well,” he said. “To do a test well and then drill a production well doesn’t, to me, make economic sense.”
Ritchie, however, says the wells can be made safe by using internal sleeves to block the flow of TCP-tainted water, which he says tends not to seep lower than about 300 feet below ground.
5 Parts per Trillion Limit
Brandon Stipe–design engineer and co-owner of Provost and Pritchard Consulting Group, the company the city has hired to oversee technical aspects of the decontamination project–says TCP removal is particularly challenging.
“One of the really difficult things about TCP is just how low the maximum contaminant level has been set. It’s set at the level of five parts per trillion,” he said. “For reference, most maximum contaminant levels that we have encountered historically have either been in the parts-per-million or the parts-per-billion (range). It’s a really, really small concentration.”
Hunt is adamant in his support for using filters to solve Tulare’s TCP contamination problem.
“We have a TCP settlement that we’re bound to deal with this. And … hope is not an option and hope is not a plan,” Hunt said. “We can’t drill our way out of this.”
Using filters, he said, is a proven solution for removing TCP.
“To go and to say we’re going to pop a new well in for a couple million bucks and hope that there’s no TCP pumped up, the reality is it’s starting to show up at these (five-parts-per-trillion) levels,” Hunt said. “It’s showing up in other wells.”
Ridding the city’s water supply of TCP, Hunt says, requires unity on the part of those tasked with providing a solution.
“We have to deal with it,” he said. “We can’t ignore it, and we can’t continue to not have a good strong focus on where we’re going.”