Inmates in Calif. prison drinking contaminated water

State has no plan, funding to reduce high arsenic level

Most correctional officers at the Kern Valley State Prison take bottled water to work. However, administrators created a form letter to reject requests for alternative water from some inmates. Most correctional officers at the Kern Valley State Prison take bottled water to work. However, administrators created a form letter to reject requests for alternative water from some inmates. (barbara davidson/los angeles times)
By Michael Rothfeld
Los Angeles Times / January 3, 2009
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DELANO, Calif. - Beside a field of tumbleweed in this remote Central Valley town, California opened its newest prison in 2005 with a modern design, innovative security features, and a big environmental problem.

Drinking water from two wells at Kern Valley State Prison contained arsenic, a known cause of cancer, in amounts far higher than a federal safety standard soon to take effect.

Yet, nearly three years after missing the government's deadline to reduce the arsenic levels, the state has no concrete plans or funding to meet it. Officials spent $629,000 to design a filtration system and then decided not to build it, while neglecting to inform staff and inmates that they were consuming contaminated water.

After the prison finally posted notices in April 2008 on orders from the state Department of Public Health, the inmates continued drinking the water, under protest.

"We have no choice," said Larry Tillman, 38, who was serving time for burglary. "We should at the very least receive bottled water, or truck in water from another city."

Most correctional officers at Kern Valley State Prison take bottled water to work, but administrators created a form letter to reject requests for alternative water from some of the 4,800 inmates. The administrators say the health hazard from arsenic, a chemical used in industry and farming, is insignificant, and they promise to filter the water some time in the next few years.

"It's not that major of an issue," said Kelly Harrington, the prison's new warden.

But long-term exposure to arsenic, common in Central Valley communities, has been linked to cancer of the lungs, skin, kidneys, liver, and bladder and to other maladies.

Critics say the situation is emblematic of the short-sighted planning and creeping pace of the prison bureaucracy as it struggles to house 170,000 inmates.

The state has placed many of its prisons in isolated areas, where they are embraced by communities desperate for jobs and commerce. But officials sometimes have ignored health threats in such regions.

Between 1987 and 1994, the state built four prisons in a part of the Central Valley known as a hotbed of valley fever, a sometimes severe infection that usually affects the lungs. Health researchers estimate that the state has spent millions to treat inmates with the disease, which is produced by a fungus in the soil.

In 2007, the year after five inmates died of valley fever, the state proposed expanding five prisons in the Central Valley but later backed off on two of the sites. One proposed expansion site, Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, had an outbreak that made 520 prisoners sick in 2006. A Fresno County grand jury concluded last year that the prison, built in 1994, should not have been put there.

In 2001, four years before Kern Valley prison opened, the US Environmental Protection Agency ordered a reduction in the maximum level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 nationwide. Water suppliers had until Jan. 23, 2006, to meet the new standard. Recent testing has shown the arsenic level in one Kern Valley prison well at 23 parts per billion and the other at 15.

One day in December, in a low white building with blue doors known as Facility C, prisoners bunking in a crowded gymnasium drank from the water fountain and used water from the sinks to make their soup. Some newcomers said they had not been told about the contamination upon arrival at the prison.

"I just came from an institution where the water was just atrocious, definitely foul," said Ramon Diaz, 25, who had three years remaining on a sentence for drug dealing. "This to me is like spring water here, and you come to find out that it's not the way it should be, either."

Correctional officials said they could not explain why a filtration system was not included in the prison's design because most of the employees who worked on it had since left. Later, the agency developed plans to add a filtration plant. It obtained $2.5 million from lawmakers for that purpose in 2006.

But planners abandoned the idea, electing instead to incorporate the project into an overall prison expansion approved by lawmakers. Flaws in the legislation have postponed the expansion indefinitely.

State project manager Gary Lewis said the filtration plant is still in the study phase.

This year, the EPA has ordered 11 California water systems to reduce excessive arsenic levels. One was the city of Delano, which serves the North Kern State Prison, a few miles from Kern Valley prison. On Dec. 12, the state health department ordered Kern Valley State Prison to come up with a plan by February to comply with the arsenic law.

The prison's chief medical officer, Dr. Sherry Lopez, said there was no immediate danger from the its water, based on an e-mail she received in April from a poison-control specialist who said arsenic is "much more a regulatory problem than a public health problem."

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