Water at Merced jail spurs lawsuit over arsenic

MERCED -- An attorney representing Merced County employees who is worried about arsenic levels in drinking water at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility filed a $400 million claim against the county.

Among his claims are allegations that county officials failed to act, despite knowing about the problem.

The county's spokesman vigorously denied that charge.

Fresno-based attorney Barry Bennett, who is representing employees at the jail and juvenile hall, filed the claim with the county clerk's office Wednesday.

Bennett said county employees who may have eaten food prepared using water at the correctional facility are included in the claim, although inmates will not be.

In response, county spokesman Mark Hendrickson re- iterated that the county is on track to establish a water filtration system at the jail within the next six months.

He stood by the county's assertion that the levels of arsenic in the jail's water system don't pose an imminent threat to human health.

Claim cites lack of notice

News of the claim follows county officials' recent acknowledgment that arsenic levels in the jail's three water wells exceed federal guidelines for drinking water. The issue came to light after the county's Division of Environmental Health issued a violation on Sept. 24 to the Department of Public Works, which is responsible for supplying water to the jail.

Bennett's claim alleges that county officials knew in 2004 that arsenic had reached a dangerous level but failed to take action or notify county employees. "People who could have brought bottled water or prepared their own food to avoid increasing arsenic contamination never knew about it," Bennett said.

He said some county employees have become ill with symptoms often related to arsenic; those people are being examined by a toxicologist. He said some of the fruit that grows on trees using the jail's water is being tested for contamination.

Bennett arrived at the $400 million figure in the claim because about 400 current and former employees at the jail since 2004 would have been affected by the arsenic levels.

Hendrickson said he hasn't seen the claim, although he believes it's premature for Bennett to talk about tests on humans or fruits without having any results to back his allegations.

"Upon receiving the claim, our county counsel's office will review it with great seriousness and attention," Hendrickson said. "I think it is important to note that this situation is not unique to Merced County, and there are a number of communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley that are dealing with this naturally occurring element."

Stricter standard set in 2006

Tests conducted on the wells in May and August by a county contractor concluded that the arsenic levels are above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard of 10 parts per billion for arsenic in drinking water -- a standard that took effect Jan. 23, 2006. The government's previous standard was 50 parts per billion. The county began supplying bottled water to employees and inmates at the jail in September, a move Hendrickson said wasn't required by federal regulations.

Until a new filtration system is installed at the jail, the facility is using water from the well with the lowest arsenic level, which is 13.5 parts per billion. The arsenic levels for the two unused wells are 45.7 and 37.8 parts per billion. Hendrickson said the Board of Supervisors approved the $600,000 filtration system in August.

Hendrickson took issue with Bennett's allegation that the county was negligent. He argued that it did take adequate steps to address the arsenic levels. In 2004, the wells at the jail complied with the federal standard for arsenic in effect at the time. Hendrickson said the county was aware in 2004 that federal guidelines for arsenic would be changing and discussions then took place about how to best address the new standard.

Arsenic is a semimetal element that is odorless and tasteless. It enters drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices, according the EPA's Web site.