Oct 16, 2007

Arsenic in Water Leads to $400 Million Lawsuit

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.