FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Eight Fresno, California, residents claim their water from a treatment facility is corroding their pipelines and exposing them to toxins including lead, iron and other hazardous substances.
Northeast Fresno homeowners Jackie Flannery, Guadalupe Meza, Ronda Rafidi, Shann Conner, Marirose Larkin, Patricia Wallace-Rixman, Harry Rixman and Kelly Unruh filed a class action in state court against the city of Fresno, Vulcan Construction & Maintenance, and Measurement Control Systems on May 17, claiming conversion, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and negligence.
“This case shines a spotlight on how the city, rather than protecting its residents from the dangers of lead in its drinking water, actively promoted, designed and approved changes to its water supply systems that it knew would likely lead to the risk of corrosion and leaching of metals in its piping, including the introduction of iron and lead into residents’ drinking water,” the 38-page complaint states.
Though only a few homeowners are named as plaintiffs, the lawsuit is on behalf of all residents of Northeast Fresno, plaintiff’s attorney Brian Kabatek told Courthouse News.
He likened the issue to eminent domain, where the government can legally take property for projects like highways. But here, the taking was illegal, he said.
“The government engaged in a constitutional violation. Its conduct is depriving people of their right to the water they’re paying for and is damaging their pipes and plumbing,” Kabatek said.
“If people have galvanized pipes in homes that were built before the water composition changed, those pipes were used to [that] chemical balance. Changing it harmed them,” he added.
In the past, Fresno got its drinking water only from wells. But pervasive drought conditions and expansive population growth forced it to consider adding new water sources to prevent overdrafting its groundwater reserves.
To that end, it brought the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility online in 2004. The facility treats water from the Kings and San Joaquin rivers received through the Enterprise Canal, distributing 20 million gallons of water each day to thousands of homes in Northeast Fresno.
In contrast to the hard, heavily mineralized groundwater from the wells, surface water from the Enterprise Canal is softer and has lower mineral, chloride, and sulfide content.
The residents claim that the city knew as far back as 1998 that mixing the two was a bad idea.
Before building the facility, Fresno hired a consultant to analyze the consequences of blending groundwater with surface water. The consultant concluded changing the water chemistry would likely strip the zinc lining from galvanized pipes, causing water discoloration and contamination from lead and other toxic metals.
Despite knowing that over 50 percent of Fresno households were equipped with galvanized piping, Fresno greenlighted the facility. Almost immediately residents began complaining about water quality problems, but the city swept them under the rug, denying responsibility and claiming the water was safe, the plaintiffs say.
Nevertheless, the city has “provide[d] a select and favored number of residents” with safe bottled water to drink and use for cooking and showering since 2005 – an offer it did not extend or even mention to the plaintiffs, they say.
After years of ignoring residents’ complaints, Fresno finally launched an investigation in 2016. Testing revealed that water numerous homes, including those belonging to the plaintiffs, had levels of lead far above the allowable limits, according to the complaint.
Further analysis from city consultants confirmed treated surface water from the facility was to blame.
When these results went public, Fresno feigned surprise and claimed it had only learned about the problem that January, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs claim this is a bald-faced lie.
“The city ignored irrefutable evidence, before Jan. 16, that the water supplied to residents of Northeast Fresno was not and is not potable or safe, and exposed and continues to expose these residents, including plaintiffs and class members, to toxic metals such as lead, which caused and continues to cause residents to suffer property damage, other economic losses, and the risk of serious health hazards,” the complaint states.
Attorney Kabatek said many people thought Fresno would step up and take responsibility after the test results came in, but those hopes were soundly dashed.
“Frankly, we thought the city would do the right thing and make an offer of repair. But since last year, they’ve dug in their heels. I think it mushroomed, and became a bigger problem than they thought,” he said.
Kabatek said the ultimate goal of the lawsuit is to make the city pay for all class members to have their homes re-piped and repaired.
He doesn’t know how many people are affected, but estimates it’s in the thousands.
In an email, Fresno’s spokesman said, “The city of Fresno has always been in compliance with the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, which has been verified by the EPA and the California State Water Resources Control Board.”
The plaintiffs seek class certification, restitution, disgorgement, and an injunction preventing the city from continuing to mix surface water into groundwater supplies for Northeast Fresno residents.
Kabatek is a partner at Kabatek Brown Kellner of Los Angeles.