The problem with the "mistakes" developers make in the heat of a construction boom is the decision the homeowner has to make once the "mistake," life-threatening or not, is discovered.
To disclose or not to disclose, that is the question.
If I don't disclose, no one can help me.
If I do disclose, there go my property value. After all, who -- regarding the Fresno case below -- would want to buy a house with plumbing that poisons the residents with lead?
But do I want to go on living in this house, continuing to expose my loved ones to lead poisoning?
So maybe the best decision I could make would be to sell the house without disclosing the lead thing (because protecting your family should not cost you, too).
But is that the right thing to do?
Right, schmight, I have a family and my pocket book to protect.
And the realtor has another fee to collect. And the developer gets away free unless it becomes a total municipal embarrassment. They've all got families, too. After all we're all reasonable businesspeople.
And time passes, people forget ...
Northeast Fresno residents hire lawyers to help them in dispute over water
Fresno officials will meet Wednesday evening with residents in the northeast part of the city to discuss ongoing concerns about discoloration and lead contamination in water coming from homeowners’ faucets.
But residents who are increasingly dissatisfied with the city’s response – and distrustful about the answers they’re receiving – are getting a legal hand from a potent team of attorneys who specialize in class-action injury, product liability and environmental cases. It’s a step that could potentially set the stage for claims against the city and, perhaps, the state of California, and potentially launch the controversy toward a courtroom.
Raymond Boucher, a Southern California attorney, said Tuesday that his Woodland Hills firm Boucher LLP is collaborating with the Valencia law firm of Owen, Patterson & Owen and withWilliams Cuker Berzaofsky, a firm in Philadelphia. Boucher is among the attorneys involved in cases related to the leak of natural gas from SoCalGas’s Aliso Canyon underground storage facility in Porter Ranch, and is a board member of Public Justice. The Philadelphia firm is representing residents in Flint, Mich., where the community faces serious and widespread lead contamination in the water supply.
Since January, complaints or reports of discolored water have been lodged with the city by as many as 1,000 or more residents in northeast Fresno – an area served by the city’s Surface Water Treatment Facility near Chestnut and Behymer avenues. The problems appear to be related to the corrosion of galvanized pipes or lead-containing fixtures in homes in that part of the city.
But complaints about discoloration in the area date back to at least 2004, when the treatment plant became operational.
In recent months, Fresno’s water division has been adjusting the water chemistry, including the amounts of corrosion-control chemicals with which canal water at the plant is treated. The city has also undertaken corrosion-control treatment of water pumped from wells, and is now blending well water with surface water at the plant before it is distributed to neighborhoods in northeast Fresno.
Of water samples from 376 homes experiencing discolored water, the city reports that initial testing indicated the presence of lead in 64 homes as of early last week. Lead is a toxic heavy metal, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates corrective action when concentrations are at or above 15 parts per billion Another 86 homes registered lead levels below the 15 ppb threshold, while no lead was detectable in 225 homes.
Boucher said a representative from the Owen firm will be at the meeting on behalf of the legal team, but said it is premature to assess the likelihood of lawsuits over the situation. The first step, he said, is to ensure that the rights of residents to file claims and take legal action are preserved. “There’s no point to do any saber-rattling at this point,” he said. Instead, the initial priority for attorneys will be to collect information so they can advise clients about their rights and how best to ensure that the water problems are fixed, prevent a repeat of the issues, and find out why it happened.
“We want to protect as much as we can everybody’s rights,” Boucher said. “That’s what the claim process is all about. You cannot bring a lawsuit under some circumstances unless there has been a claim. … So the first thing is to maintain the status quo and preserve their rights.”
“Obviously there is a significant amount of investigation and analysis that has to take place,” Boucher added. “The people of northeast Fresno unfortunately feel very much in the dark (and are) leery and uncertain about the information that is coming out, how valid and accurate and complete it is.”
At a press conference last week to discuss the water situation,Mayor Ashley Swearengin said part of the city’s investigationincluded seeking legal counsel over the prospect of liability in the case. The city consulted with a lawyer who ordinarily represents plaintiffs in liability disputes to assess potential risk over corrosion of household plumbing linked to the city’s water.
Fresno’s water division and the State Water Resources Control Board maintain that water delivered to homes in the city’s pipelines is safe and meets all state and federal standards for drinkability. The concerns, they say, focus on how the blend of surface and pumped water interacts with galvanized household plumbing in affected homes.
Fresno water complaints were hidden from city officials, mayor says
A former Fresno water plant operator used a private email server and cell phone to hide complaints of discolored or tainted water from his bosses, city officials said Thursday.
During a news conference, city leaders said they had no access to the server and the complaints, numbering an estimated 150 to 200 per year. The complaints were never shared with them, nor given to the state Water Resources Control Board as required by law.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin, City Manager Bruce Rudd and Thomas Esqueda, director of public utilities, discussed the findings in the city’s investigation thus far into the tainted and discolored water situation affecting northeast Fresno.
The former employee was identified as Robert Moorhead, the northeast water plant operator. He had documented the complaints during the mid-2000s until 2011, when he was fired. City officials on Thursday did not go into the reasons for his removal.
Moorhead used a private email and cell phone and never reported the complaints to his superiors, a violation of city policy. The complaints also were not made public to the state, which is required under state law.
Moorhead has turned into a primary focus of the investigation by a private agency, city officials confirmed. They said he and his boss, Lon Martin, former assistant director of public utilities, will be interviewed by city investigators in coming days.
There was no tipoff that hundreds of complaints had been made even though the city was supplying bottled water to a small number of customers.
Swearengin laid out the city’s response since January and briefly went over the 12-year history of the problem, which remained mostly hidden from city officials until seven months ago.
She said the city responded within 24 hours of the initial complaint in January, triggering the investigation that evaluated plumbing and fixtures in homes and water chemistry that led to discoloration and other problems, including lead contamination. The city also examined its internal processes for documenting customer complaints and proper reporting to the state.
It was clear from the investigation that the city “lacked the processes necessary to document customer complaints and properly report those complaints to the state,” she said.
It’s still not known, Swearengin said, who made the decision to route customer complaints directly to the water system operator outside the city’s normal reporting protocol, and who directed city employees to not properly report complaints to the state.
And other than a few complaints of discolored water, no reports were forward to city officials. Swearengin said there had been an absence of complaints from 2004 to 2016 and nothing filed with the state.
The complaint process is now fixed, she said.
“It’s hindsight, but there’s no excuse for not properly recording customers’ complaints,” the mayor said.
City officials say 150 to 200 complaints were made annually to Moorhead using his private server, email and cell phone, but those were not reported to the state.
The city of Clovis told Fresno city leaders that their water plant gets about 50 to 75 complaints annually about water from its treatment plant. Reasonably, Fresno officials said, their city should expect far more since its plant is five times larger.
Lisa Koehn, Clovis assistant public utilities director, said the city had 49 discolored water complaints and 25 taste and odor complaints in 2015.
Swearengin went over the history of the problem, chronicling many of the most important moments in the process. The first complaint dates back to September 2004, about three months after the northeast plant first opened.
In February 2005, Mayor Alan Autry and former City Manager Andy Souza were notified only once of discolored water in eight to 10 homes, and were told that the situation was under control.
In 2005, Council Member Jerry Duncan got a call from Martin, the assistant public utilities director, saying that 15 to 20 customers were complaining and that the city’s water was “corrosion-free,” Swearengin said. At the time, the city said problems in the homes were related to water softeners.
There were supposed to be workshops and further discussions about the problem, but those never occurred, the mayor said.
Faced with a decision in 2005 to change out pipes or change water chemistry, Martin told Moorhead to change corrosion inhibitor chemistry. But there is no record of that change being made, the mayor said. Such a change must be reported to the state, and the state also has no record of it, she added.
Complaints were made directly to Moorhead on his personal server in violation of city policy, and he kept a private complaint log apart from official city records.
Swearengin described Moorhead’s system between 2004 and 2011 as “a lot of boxes.” She said Moorhead often worked from his home.
The city attorney has asked him to turn over documents and records that are city property to shed additional light on why those records were kept private, she said.
Esqueda said that between 2004 and 2011 the number of complaints to the city “was pretty much zip.”
From 2011 to 2016, complaints were logged on the city’s complaint line, said Mark Standriff, the city’s spokesman.
But none were reported to the state. It’s not known why that happened and is part of the city’s investigation, he said.
Standriff said there were two different plant operators, but the state has no record of the city reporting problems between 2004 and 2016.
He described the process that led to complaints being relayed to Moorhead.
The complaints were initially called in to dispatchers, but staffers were directed to send complaints to Moorhead, Esqueda said.
He said dispatch sent those complaints to Moorhead’s city email and city cellphone. During the investigation, the city learned that Moorhead’s city phone was programmed to push calls to his private cellphone, and he then used a private server to communicate with residents about their water problems.
He said nobody has been able to determine why those calls were directed that way and who ordered it done, which the city wants to address in the upcoming interview with Moorhead.
Swearengin said the city has heard from residents who said they spoke with Moorhead, and officials want to know what Moorhead told them.
Moorhead said Thursday that he wasn’t in charge of filing documents on odor or taste complaints, but reported to the state monthly on treatment plant issues.
He said he would address water complaints from copies of emails from the city’s water quality supervisor, Bob Little, so he could address issues at the plant, such as needing to alter the water’s chemical composition.
“My jurisdiction was just at the treatment plant and the water quality when it left the property line of the plant,” he said. “We had no discolored water at the treatment plant.”
Moorhead said it was his job to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to work on plant problems.
“I feel like I’m being used as some kind of scapegoat,” he said.
The chief of Fresno’s water operations was placed on administrative leave in July over discrepancies in the reporting of water quality issues. The city didn’t identify the employee because of confidentiality of personnel actions. But the post is held by Kenneth Heard, a 16-year veteran of the water division in Fresno’s Public Utilities Department.
The city found that water in most homes was not contaminated by lead at high enough levels to violate state guidelines. Of the 376 test results the city has received, four samples with higher lead levels were taken in kitchen sinks. Others were found in bathroom sinks, garage sinks, bathtubs and one shower.
Complaints about discolored water in northeast Fresno date as far back as 2004. That’s the year that the city, which had historically relied solely on pumped well water for its drinking water supply, began introducing Enterprise Canal water, treated at the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility, into the system serving northeast Fresno. In addition to disinfecting and filtering of the water, corrosion-control chemicals are added and the water is blended with pumped well water before it flows through the city’s water mains.
Earlier this year residents in northeast Fresno began complaining on social media about discolored water flowing out of their household taps. Initial checks by the city showed that some homes had lead in their water. Fresno’s water division, as well as theState Water Resources Control Board, maintain that what gets delivered to homes in the city’s system is safe and meets all state and federal standards for drinkability.
But the issues revolve around what happens when the blend of surface and pumped water interacts with the galvanized household plumbing in affected homes. Surface water has different temperature, chemical and pH characteristics than water pumped from wells. Those different characteristics can degrade protective mineral scales that form over time on the inside of pipes and allow corrosion to happen faster.
In recent months, the city has been incrementally adjusting treatment at the water plant, including pH and anti-corrosion chemicals, to see what effect it has on discoloration and lead levels in follow-up testing at affected homes.
Since January, the city made four changes to its water chemistry, including as recently as three weeks ago. Esqueda said the city plans to retain that chemistry for now.
He said improvements are being reported, with some residents reporting water discoloration disappearing and others seeing less color. Still, he admitted, some have reported no change.
He said the city will continue to evaluate what is different about the homes where water remains discolored.
The common theme, Esqueda said, is that galvanized pipe bought from offshore sources was used in home construction. He said that pipe has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit.
Experts Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and Vernon Snoeyink of the University of Illinois are investigating the city’s water problems. Edwards worked on the Flint, Mich., investigation. Snoeyink is a nationally known expert who has been involved in federal Environmental Protection Agency investigations in recent years.
Snoeyink will attend a community meeting next Wednesday at Clovis West High School to discuss the investigation’s preliminary findings.
City Manager Bruce Rudd said no complaints will be ignored and urged Fresno residents to use the city’s FresGo app available for cellphones and through the city website.
He said complaints will come directly to the city in “real time” through the app, allowing the city to look at the number and locations of complaints.
“It will help us identify where problems are occurring and who we need to contact” within the city to address them, he said.
The city, he said, has come a long way since the start of the investigation.
“We are committed to make sure we correct this problem and not only for these residents, but to make sure this kind of situation, whether it’s discolored water or something else, doesn’t ever happen again to this organization.”
Esqueda said it will take a month to two to complete the city’s investigation, which is being paid for from water enterprise reserve funds. The investigation has cost $800,000 so far, he said.
City expands investigation into lead, discoloration in northeast Fresno water
Notices going out this week to every home and business in 93720, 93730 ZIP codes
Mayoral candidate says city not moving fast enough to alert residents to concerns
Of 14,000 northeast homes, 320 report discolored water; 39 show lead in water
Fresno leaders will be sending direct-mail fliers this week to every water customer in the northeastern area of the city, substantially expanding the scope of an investigation into discolored water coming from faucets in hundreds of homes as well as lead contamination in about 40 homes.
City Manager Bruce Rudd and Public Utilities Director Thomas Esqueda announced the measure on Tuesday, about an hour after mayoral candidate Henry Perea complained that the city’s investigation has been too narrow because it has thus far focused only on residents who have complained about discolored water and requested testing.
The mailers will be sent to homes and businesses in the 93720 and 93730 ZIP codes. It includes a phone number, email address and website where residents can report discoloration in the water and get in the queue for having their water tested.
The two ZIP codes include about 15,000 homes and roughly correspond to the area of the city served by a plant that treats surface water from the Enterprise Canal to distribute into Fresno’s drinking water system since about 2004. The plant was built to augment groundwater wells that were inadequate to meet the growing water demand of residential development growth in the area.
“Fresno’s water supply is clean, safe and reliable,” Rudd said Tuesday. “The city’s groundwater and surface water supply meets all federal and state drinking water standards and is safe to drink.”
As The Bee reported Tuesday, the concerns appear to be related to corrosion of galvanized pipe or fixtures containing lead within homes in the area receiving the treated surface water, or a blend of surface water and pumped groundwater. Since January, about 320 homes have reported discoloration in their water. Of that, 220 homes have had their water tested by the city. In 39 of those homes, water from 69 faucets has tested positive for lead contamination greater than 15 parts per billion, the federal level at which corrective action is required.
Perea, in his news conference in front of Laurel Hager’s home, had no quarrel with the city’s assertions that “the water coming from the (surface water treatment) plant is safe, but there is definitely an issue once that water crosses that meter and hits people’s homes.” Hager showed reporters rust-tinged water flowing from several faucets in her home, which is among those with lead contamination.
“The issue we have before us today is one that is growing, and one that we do not have all of the answers to,” Perea said, “but it certainly requires a lot more action than what is occurring today.” Perea called for the city to “immediately notify all 15,000 homes and all 13 schools in the service area of a potential issue that may be occurring in their water supply, and provide every resident with an opportunity to have their water tested.”
Those two steps, however, are already in the works.
Water has also been tested at six elementary schools located nearest the surface water plant at Chestnut and Behymer avenues. Five faucets were tested at each school, typically those receiving the heaviest use such as cafeterias and drinking fountains. Out of 30 fixtures, four faucets at three schools tested positive for lead, but at levels below the federal action level of contamination.
Perea said the city should quickly move to test the other schools, including middle and high school campuses, in northeast Fresno. “There’s not a lot of activity, so we have the perfect time to make sure that all schools are tested and safe,” he said.
The city is already planning to coordinate with the Clovis Unified School District, which operates the schools in the area, for testing the other schools, Rudd and Esqueda said. But they and Kassy Chauhan, a senior engineer with the drinking water division of the State Water Resources Control Board, said the school water needs to be tested under normal conditions, which means waiting until school resumes to test the water.
Rudd and Chauhan reiterated that because of the inconsistent nature of the complaints by residents – discoloration in some homes from only one seldom-used faucet, in other homes from multiple faucets, or lead detected in one faucet but not another within a home, and no discoloration or lead issues at all in other homes – the city is moving deliberately in its investigation rather than rushing to make changes to the water supply.
“We are working to make adjustments to the ground water and the surface water chemistry in order to accommodate more than 14,000 homes,” Rudd said. “We’re dealing with a very small universe, and trying to adjust the chemistry to correct a problem in 300-plus homes could also result in making the problem worse for other residents in northeast Fresno.”
“It’s not as simple as just flipping a switch and making a correction,” Rudd added.