Clerk to the Board
State Water Resources Control Board
PO Box 100
Sacramento, CA 95812-0100
Re: Comment Letter – Hexavalent Chromium Workshop
Dear Ms. Townsend:
As a contract water treatment operator for Crescent Bay Improvement Company, I submit the following brief comments and response to the White Paper On Economic Feasibility Analysis In Consideration of a Hexavalent Chromium MCL (“the White Paper”), released for public comment by the State Water Resources Control Board in February 2020 and presented in public workshops in April 2022.
The State Water Resources Control Board’s White Paper Discussion On: Economic Feasibility Analysis of a Hexavalent Chromium MCL does not do what the title claims. It is deficient in its analysis of economic feasibility and dismissive of costs to the consumers, who are purportedly to be the beneficiaries of a new and more stringent Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for chromium-6 (i.e., hexavalent chromium or CRVI). The White Paper takes a bold stand by using, in essence, the opposite of a progressive tax system. In a progressive system, the richest pay more in taxes than the poor. The White Paper’s approach is to have the poorest pay the most. The White Paper uses a weighted average to whitewash the costs. What level of Dante’s hell is it where a few people will have crushing weights put on them and the majority will be burdened with feathers?
Also missing is any attempt to quantify any benefit of the new MCL, other than to say the Water Board will be able to tout their new MCL is closer to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s Public Health Goal as required in statute. Previous White Papers produced by the Division of Drinking Water have noted the number of cancer cases they expect to avoid at different MCLs. The 2020 White Paper provides no enumerated benefits at all, much less at the different possible MCLs.
To be fair, the authors of the White Paper were handed a fool’s errand. They were to justify the cost of something with an infinitesimal or zero benefit. Consider this: one drop of cola is more than 250 times above the safe level for caffeine. This safe level is known as the Reference Dose (RfD). Interestingly, caffeine and chromium-6 have nearly identical RfDs, and thus nearly identical toxicities. A daily drop of cola or coffee on the tongue does not scare me. Thus, whatever cost for implementation the White Paper’s authors could conjure would vastly exceed the benefit, which is virtually zero.
And the White Paper ignores or elides the fact that 12.9 million Californians (36.1%) live in poverty and people of color are twice as likely as whites to be in poverty. These low-income communities are often serviced by cash-strapped small public water systems. Furthermore, as noted by the Central Valley Clean Water Alliance (CVCWA), these people face what “Hernandez (2016) describes the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma wherein low-income households are forced to choose between food and energy, oftentimes trading one for the other.”
While my particular water system probably won’t have to address this issue at these levels, I speak on behalf of the two-thirds of water systems in our state serving fewer than 200 connections. The Water Board has noted that 95% of our population is served by large water companies, but two thirds of all water companies that would bear these costs are classified as small.
For an agency that claims to care about minorities and the poor, making a basic need more expensive seems an odd approach, especially considering the diminishing benefits and exponential costs of incrementally lower maximum contaminant levels. The Water Board will continue the beatings until the populace feels better.
Everyone now knows hexavalent chromium as the chemical made famous in 2000 by the movie “Erin Brockovich.” The result, following the movie’s premier, could be described as a moral panic. A moral panic is where media reporting creates a folk devil, and so the public demands the authorities do something about it. This is useful for the state. American journalist, essayist, satirist, and cultural critic H.L. Mencken put it plainly in his In Defense Of Women, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
The Erin Brockovich movie, which so many believe to be a documentary, rather than movie fiction “based on a true story,” blamed Pacific Gas & Electric for putting a highly dangerous chemical in their groundwater. It is even in the Water Board’s timeline of events relating to chromium-6.
On July 1, 2014, a maximum contaminant level (MCL or drinking water standard) of 10 ppb (parts per billion) for hexavalent chromium (CrVI) was approved by the Office of Administrative Law. This MCL was 1/10th of the federal MCL for total chromium (100 parts per billion) that was established under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and 1/5th of the current California MCL for total chromium (50 parts per billion). This new MCL was issued by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) right before its Division of Drinking Water transferred jurisdiction to the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board).
On May 31, 2017, the Superior Court of Sacramento County issued a judgment invalidating the MCL on the basis that CDPH had not properly considered the economic feasibility. “Because the Court remands this case to the Department for further consideration of economic feasibility, it need not decide whether the MCL is economically feasible, although, as will become apparent below, it has concerns about the MCL’s economic feasibility for small water systems and their users…. The Department essentially equates its economic feasibility analysis with its cost-benefit analysis.”
For the purposes of determining economic feasibility, the State Water Board must consider the cost of compliance to:
• Public water systems
• Other affected parties
Chromium-6 is a natural substance and can be found in rocks, plants, soil, and volcanic dust. This means it can be found naturally in water. This also means that all animals, including humans, have been interacting with and consuming chromium-6 at various levels for millennia. Since we evolved surrounded by millions of compounds, we have incorporated them into our bodies as we evolved. For example, did you know you have 20,000,000 plutonium atoms in your bone marrow? Every animal that has ever lived does and did as well. We interact with our environment; it interacts with us.
Despite incorporating compounds from our environment into our bodies and their function, every compound, no matter how dangerous, has a level at which it is safe, and can even be beneficial. Every compound, no matter how benign, has a level at which it is dangerous. At higher levels, chromium-6 is known to be toxic in two ways. First, by contact. Long duration direct exposure to skin can produce an irritating allergic reaction. And second, by inhalation, which is why the workers at PG&E wore respirators to protect against chromium-6 fumes. A paper claiming it caused stomach cancers in China was retracted.
Chromium-6 is comparable in toxicity to caffeine. A toxicologically safe dose is called a Reference Dose (RfD). Chromium-6 and caffeine have nearly identical RfDs. The RfD for caffeine is 0.0025 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. That is about 3-4 drops of a Coca-Cola for a 70-kilogram adult. According to one research paper about toxicity published in the Journal of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, “[Caffeine’s] final RfD would be 0.0025 mg/kg-day, a very small dose in the same range as RfDs for known toxicants such as hexavalent chromium and potassium cyanide. For a 10-kg child, this dose is the quantity of caffeine in 1/50th of a milliliter (mL) of cola (based on the content of Coca-Cola, 35 mg per 12 fl oz).”  (Parentheses in original)
And while the Board may well point out that chromium-6 has no use in the body, this is not exactly true, since chromium-6 is ingested and changed to chromium-3 by the body’s functions. Chromium-3 is an essential mineral that the body needs. It is involved in the breakdown and absorption of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and enhances the action of the hormone insulin. And according to a report by the National Research Council, “In its hexavalent state (as chromic oxide, chromate, or dichromate), chromium is a strong oxidizing agent and readily reacts with organic matter in acidic solution, leading to reduction to the trivalent form” aka chromium-3.
Yet, Erin Brockovich proved there were clusters of cancers in Hinkley due to the drinking water, right? No.
According to Dr. Alex Berezow a PhD microbiologist and science writer, Brockovich used the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.” “By sheer chance alone, patients with particular diseases — even rare ones — can occasionally be found in close proximity to one another.” In fact, an epidemiological survey conducted by the state found no extra cases of cancer in Hinkley than what normally would be expected. He goes on to say, “Ms. Brockovich’s case did not make biomedical sense, because she not only blamed hexavalent chromium for causing cancer but a myriad of unrelated conditions.” In other words, her linkage of chromium-6 to all those diseases was as sound as the ailments listed by people who believe in “chem-trails” or are afraid of genetically modified corn.
Interestingly, the Division of Drinking Water abandoned their typical cost-benefit analysis for the chromium-6 White Paper. “The chrome 6 MCL [maximum contaminant level], adopted by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) in April 2014, stands out as a significant departure from [CDPH] past practice and from the legislative intent of the 1996 CSDWA [California Safe Drinking Water Act] amendments,” the Southern California Water Coalition noted. “Cost estimates were developed for seven alternative MCLs. However, the incremental public health benefits were not compared to the incremental costs of compliance at each alternative MCL. It also does not appear that a balancing exercise was undertaken to ensure that the small incremental benefits that would be achieved justified the incremental costs and the increased burden on public water systems and their customers.”
In other words, the California Department of Public Health, for whatever internal reasons, did not do a cost-benefit analysis to show that the benefit to the people of California outweighed the additional burden of cost.
The White Paper states, “The level at which the State Water Board sets an MCL is a policy decision. It is not an arbitrary or capricious decision but based on applying available scientific evidence to rulemaking requirements of applicable statutes.” This is the paper’s only nod to science. We are being asked to believe that science has gone into the review. Yet as physicist Richard Feynman said, “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.”
“’Science’ is not a set of facts but a process or method that sets out a way for us to discover information,” said John R. Christy, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Alabama in Huntsville in Congressional testimony, “and which attempts to determine the level of confidence we might have in that information.” Anyone can participate in science. That’s the point. Science is a decentralized self–regulating process for legitimizing belief. It usually consists of observations, hypotheses, experimentation, and open-ended public adjudication. In science, nothing is ever settled, except that as more people see evidence and are persuaded by its proponents, a consensus may form and be generally agreed upon.
Toxicology, epidemiology, economics, statistics, risk-assessment, and other scientific disciplines go into providing safe and affordable drinking water to our neighbors. These can be difficult topics to relay in clear language, yet that is what the California Legislature requires the Water Board to do. The Water Board needs to show its work as to the data, the manipulation of the data, the interpretation of the data, and how that affected the formation of a regulation.
The British Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in verba, is Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it.” “Because we said so” is not the intent of the California Legislature; they want the Water Board to be transparent in how they determined this was necessary. The California Legislature through the Administrative Procedure Act mandates the Water Board explain what is being promulgated, the reasons the Water Board believes it will make our world safer, and why it is worth the cost.
All regulations come with a cost. They are a form of governmental taking, and at the very least, a taking of time. At the very worst, a taking of time and money. In this case, any decrease in the MCLs for chromium-6 will cost money and time. Paperwork, testing, labs, all take time and money, even before factoring in changes treatment processes. In a 2008 report, the Small Business Administration calculated the annual cost of federal regulations in the United States at $1.75 trillion. “Had every U.S. household paid an equal share of the federal regulatory burden, each would have owed $15,586 in 2008.” State, regional, and local regulations then pile on more costs per household. Additional regulation hits small water companies harder since there are fewer people to shoulder the cost.
Weighting the costs, as done in the White Paper, is economic sleight of hand to hide the devastating effect on almost two-thirds of California Water Companies (those serving fewer than 200 connections). Since the Water Board had to resort to hiding the true cost, why pursue this at all?
A table in the White Paper provides estimated Annual Cost per Service Connection (dollars per year) for a range of possible MCL values. Compliance with the proposed chromium-6 MCL (10 parts per billion) will result in a $5,630-per-connection annual cost for users of small systems (less than 200 service connections), $857 for systems with 200 to 999 service connections, $326 for systems with 1,000 to 10,000 connections, and $64 for systems greater than 10,000 connections – based on information derived from the 2014 California Department of Public Health Initial Statement of Reasons.
|MCL (mg/L)||Less than 200 Services||200 to 999 Services||1,000 to 10,000 Services||10,000 or more Services||Weighted Average ANNUAL Cost per Connection for all impacted systems||Weighted Average MONTHLY Cost|
After seeing numbers such as those in their table, one wonders why the Water Board did not simply stop, declare that people would need to purchase bottled water for drinking, and use tap water supplied by public water systems for other domestic uses. They also should wonder why the costs drop to $857 per connection for 10 parts per billion, and costs at 25 and 30 parts per billion are not applicable for public water systems with between 200 and 999 service connections. Please show your work to explain why there is no applicable cost for these categories.
I do not know if the members of the Water Board must consider, as I do, the cost of something when considering a purchase. I consider the costs and benefits of a good or a service before I buy. When the cost of something goes up, I buy less of it. Yet, as noted before, the Water Board’s White Paper has tried to hide the cost. As Bjorn Lomborg said when evaluating public health goals, “[I]gnoring costs doesn’t make difficult choices disappear; it makes them less clear.” The White Paper has made options less clear, seemingly by design. California’s public water systems have finite wallets. Some are deeper than others.
The government of California must make some hard choices. They must decide which targets offer the greatest returns on the money and time taken from the taxpayers, who they are supposed to serve. As for the Water Board, where is the balancing act suggested by the California Safe Drinking Water Act and the Human Right to Water Act to both protect public health through maximum contaminant levels and acknowledging the competing demands for limited economic resources? This new contemplated maximum contaminant level is exactly what SB 1307 aimed to prevent. It ignores any checks and balances to prevent unsustainable outcomes. SB 1307 further repealed the requirement that large water systems attempt to reach the Public Health Goal levels. There seems to be no consideration to the disproportionately expensive maximum contaminant level compared to any public health benefit.
One hard choice, since money and time are the most limited of resources, is what is more important to California residents: replacing aging water infrastructure or ratcheting down a maximum contaminant level to possibly prevent health issues that have not been established by the science? Forcing water companies to divert funds from replacing aging infrastructure will have a cost that is more immediate in the form of system failures.
Additionally, there will be unexpected consequences. Increasing water bills will probably have knock-on effects in reduced sanitation, increased risk of infectious diseases when people try to minimize their water use because it has become so expensive.
hy has the chromium-6 White Paper differed so radically from past practice and from the intent of the California Safe Drinking Water Act? Why are there no public health benefits presented to compare to the incremental costs at the differing proposed MCLs as SB 617 requires and past practice with setting other MCLs? What happened to cause this abandonment of using the incremental cost-benefit approach in the White Paper? What is the cost of no change to California’s chromium-6 maximum contaminant level? At the standard $4,000,000 per life, how many dollars (lives) will saved under the proposed chromium-6 maximum contaminant level? Since cancer cases averted has been used in the past, what dollar amount does the Water Board assign to the average cancer case, and why isn’t it assigned here?
I and my customers want more than moral panic and unmoored speculation from the Water Board and its staff. Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world using a systematic, evidence-based methodology. While the numbers and abbreviations can cloud the issue, it seems that the Water Board is mandating a standard based on voodoo toxicology, economics, and other disciplines. The ingestion of less than a drop of something similar in toxicity to cola each day sounds extremely unlikely to be risky.
Science requires observation and measurement of predictions. ‘I believe in science’ is a statement of belief. Belief is the realm of religion; science inhabits that which can be observed and measured. Show us the science behind your reasoning for making this change, show us the benefits expected, and the true, unweighted, costs incurred for each proposed for each level of water company.
Lastly, if the Water Board adopts what I see as an ill-advised step and adopts this lower maximum contaminant level, then the Water Board must develop public health metrics (e.g., fewer cancer cases) to show that the benefit was worth the cost. California has had a maximum contaminant level that is half of the Federal EPA total chromium standard for many years, and yet the White Paper makes no effort to show that this has resulted in any benefit at all. Why should we all line up behind a proposal to lower the maximum contaminant level still further, in the absence of any data at all supporting the first reduction from 100 parts per billion to 50 parts per billion?
I thank the Water Board for taking my statement.
 California Health and Human Services Open Data Portal https://data.chhs.ca.gov/dataset/poverty-rate-by-california-regions/resource/ea66eef9-d854-4792-a587-636579780481 (accessed 4/23/22)
 https://www.epa.gov/sdwa/chromium-drinking-water accessed Nov. 15, 2021
 National Research Council 1974. Chromium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/20099
 That is for every kilogram of body weight the RfD per day would be 0.0025 milligrams, i.e., 2.5 μg/kg
 The number of drops of coffee or tea or yerba mate are similar.
 That is for every kilogram of body weight the RfD per day would be 0.0025 milligrams, i.e., 2.5 μg/kg.
 About one-half of a drop.
 Sorell, Tamara L. 2016. “Approaches to the Development of Human Health Toxicity Values for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients in the Environment.” The AAPS Journal 18 (1): 92–101. https://doi.org/10.1208/s12248-015-9818-5
 National Research Council. “Committee on Biologic Effects of Atmospheric Pollutants. Chromium.” National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC (1974).
 The sharpshooter fallacy is a form of confirmation bias where certain patterns or data are accepted but others are ignored. The name comes from a joke about a Texan who shoots at the side of a barn, then paints a around the tightest cluster of hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.
 California Repudiates Erin Brockovich on Hexavalent Chromium http://www.acsh.org/news/2017/08/02/california-repudiates-erin-brockovich-hexavalent-chromium-11644?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter (accessed August 2, 2017)
 Southern California Water Coalition, Position Statement on Economic Feasibility Guidance for MCLs (February 19, 2019)
 State Water Resources Control Board, White Paper Discussion On: ECONOMIC FEASIBILITY ANALYSIS In Consideration of a HEXAVALENT CHROMIUM MCL February 2020
 J.R. Christy 29 March 2017 testimony U.S. House Committee on Science, Space & Technology
 Nicole V. Crain and W. Mark Crain, The Impact of Regulatory Costs on Small Firms. September 2010
 Why does it cost more per service connection for 0.015 mg/L than the most stringent standard of 0.001 mg/L?
 Why is there no cost associated?
 Why does the more lenient MCL cost more per connection?