Disney studios from above.

Disney studios from above. (Brian Vander Brug, Los Angeles Times / August 22, 2012 / August 22, 2012)

Federal and state regulators are investigating whether a vintage air conditioning system at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank played a role in contaminating groundwater with chromium 6, a cancer-causing heavy metal widely used in aerospace manufacturing and other industries.

A consultant hired by the Environmental Protection Agency recently identified the Disney property among a list of facilities being “investigated as potential sources of chromium contamination in groundwater,” according to an April 2012 report recently posted on the agency's website.

Authorities have long been aware of chromium 6 contamination in San Fernando Valley groundwater and have already identified a number of companies responsible for contamination, including aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. Lockheed paid $60 million to settle claims with roughly 1,300 residents in 1996 alleging that exposure to chromium 6 and other toxins at its former aircraft manufacturing plant left them with cancer and other maladies.

The Disney site has recently come under scrutiny by state and federal officials as part of a broader investigation into groundwater contamination, records show. Citing community concerns about contamination, the California Department of Public Health in 2010 tested soil in a nearby park that historically had received discharges of water from Disney's cooling system and found chromium 6.

The levels were not deemed to be a threat to public health. Even so, the Disney headquarters was among several locations being investigated as a potential source of contamination, in part because it used cooling towers, a known source of chromium 6 contamination at other sites, Lisa Hanusiak, remedial project manager for EPA Region 9, said in an interview.

Disney has denied using chromium compounds in its air conditioning system or cooling towers. The company said in a detailed response to the EPA on May 17, 2011 that it stored a small amount of chromium-based material used to clean equipment in film processing and that the hazardous waste was properly disposed of through the city of Burbank.

Disney officials on Wednesday declined to comment beyond their statements in the documents.

A Glendale research team testing methods for stripping chromium 6 from groundwater released an estimate earlier this year projecting the long-term cost at up to $27 million over 20 years.

The costs will be a key consideration for the California Department of Public Health, which plans to use the more than 10 years of research carried out by Glendale Water & Power to set a new maximum contaminant level for cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. 

Staff writer Brittany Levine contributed to this report.