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County target of $400M claim

An attorney representing Merced County employees concerned about arsenic levels in drinking water at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility is filing 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 in the jail and juvenile hall, said the claim would be filed with the county clerk's office by today. Bennett said county employees who may have consumed food prepared using water at the correctional facility are also included in the claim, although inmates will not be.

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

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, the agency responsible for supplying water to the jail.

Bennett's claim alleges county officials knew in 2004 that the arsenic levels 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 now being examined by a toxicologist. He also said some of the fruit that grows on trees using the jail water is also being tested for contamination.

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

Hendrickson said he hasn't yet 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."

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 federal 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 that Hendrickson said wasn't required by the feds.

Until a new filtration system is installed at the jail, the facility is using water from the well with the lowest arsenic levels, which are at 13.5 parts per billion. The arsenic levels for the water in 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 the federal guidelines for arsenic would be changing and discussions then took place about how to best address the new standard.

No tests for arsenic were done on the wells in 2006 because the county is required to conduct those tests only every three years -- and the next scheduled year was 2007, Hendrickson said. "We are on a good timeline to be in compliance with this new standard," Hendrickson maintained.

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.

Noncancerous effects can include thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness in hands and feet, partial paralysis and blindness. Arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate, according to the Web site.

Peggy O'Day, a professor at UC Merced's School of Natural Sciences, said arsenic levels that meet the federal government's previous standard of 50 parts per billion in drinking water generally don't pose a huge health risk and would have to be ingested over a period of many years before they could prove dangerous. "I don't recommend that people should be drinking water with elevated levels of arsenic in it, but short-term exposure at those levels isn't going to do people much harm," O'Day said.

Jeff Palsgaard, county director of the Division of Environmental Health, said in September that the level of arsenic in the jail's water is so minuscule that a human being would have to drink the water for "decades" before experiencing any ill effects.

Still, O'Day said ingestion of water containing arsenic under the previous federal standard may slightly increase the risk of certain cancers, based on long- term studies of large populations -- but only if the water is ingested over a period of several years. "That does not mean that everybody exposed to that level is necessarily going to get cancer," O'Day said. "The reason why the standard was lowered was simply to provide an added layer of protection (and) lowering of the overall risk for long-term exposure."

Regardless, Bennett said he will eventually file a lawsuit on behalf of the employees if the county Board of Supervisors rejects the claim. "I think a million is a fair price to ask for something that could shorten their life considerably," he said. "We think it's a number that approximates the damage that was done to these folks."

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209-385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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