Nonprofit sues Livingston over drinking water

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 15, 2014 

An environmental nonprofit organization has filed a lawsuit against the city of Livingston after its drinking water consistently exceeded the maximum contaminant level for arsenic.

The documents filed in the Fresno Division of the Eastern District of California allege the city failed to resolve the issue after receiving a 60-day notice of violation from the nonprofit, California River Watch. The nonprofit sent the letter Dec. 10, 2013, before filing the lawsuit in late March of this year.

The statewide organization said the city has violated the Federal Safe Water Drinking Act on a repeated and ongoing basis.

City Manager Jose Ramirez did not return calls for comment.

The city’s arsenic levels exceeded the state’s maximum contaminant level of 0.010 parts per million numerous times in 2009, 2012 and 2013, according to the court documents. The latest levels were recorded as 0.013 parts per million April 9 and 0.011 parts per million April 30.

“It demonstrates there is a longstanding problem and an obvious lack of commitment to resolve this problem,” said David Weinsoff, an attorney retained by California River Watch. “We live in the richest country on the Earth and it’s unacceptable for the government to provide unhealthy drinking water to its citizens.”

Livingston’s ongoing water problems were brought to the attention of California River Watch after the city received a compliance order from the state Department of Public Health in May 2013. The state agency mandated Livingston submit a plan to correct the existing water problems and be in full compliance by June 1, 2016.

A letter sent in January from the Livingston city manager to California River Watch acknowledged the quality of water produced by most city wells is “marginal” and detailed plans to install a treatment system to Well No. 13 by the end of 2015.

But residents would still be drinking “arsenic-laden” water in the meantime, Weinsoff said, and that’s not good enough.

“There are senior citizens and children who are drinking this water, those that have compromised health systems that are drinking this water,” he said. “I frankly don’t see why the city doesn’t figure out who is most affected by the arsenic and provide water bottles or another alternative water source.”

Arsenic in drinking water has been linked to adverse health effects including circulatory problems and increased risk of cancer, according to the court documents.

Weinsoff said the goal of the lawsuit is to order the city to address the problem sooner than the deadline issued by the state and to notify at-risk residents, such as children and the elderly, when the city is out of compliance with maximum contaminant levels.

If a judge determines the city has violated the law, it could be forced to pay civil penalties up to $37,500 per day per violation. The court could also award California River Watch its attorney’s fees and costs.

Livingston Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra said Livingston is taking steps to correct the problem. For example, Samra said, the city this week installed a redesigned filter system to Well No. 16, which contained the highest level of arsenic.

“It’s more effective in reducing arsenic and it’s cheaper because multiple vendors make and sell the parts,” Samra said. “This will resolve a lot of problems. Having worked on this plan for more than three years, I think we have a well-thought-out plan. We’ve done everything we could possibly do.”

The city released three water and sewer rate increase scenarios earlier this year to fund repairs and improvements to infrastructure of existing water wells, including installing filtration systems.

City officials said the rate hikes will also help offset negative balances in the city’s enterprise funds, build a reserve and help pay off existing bonds and debt.

If 50.1 percent of the 3,000 property owners affected by the increases protest them, the city cannot raise the rates.

The first public hearing about the rate increases will be held 7 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council chamber, 1416 C St.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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