Judge takes La Verne to task for water quality, city responds
By Liset Márquez and Monica Rodriguez, originally posted on November 17, 2016
LA VERNE >> A Los Angeles Superior Court judge is raising serious questions about La Verne’s water record, after the city’s water utility got caught up in a neighboring city’s legal battle.
In making a bid to take over the local pipes from the Golden State Water Co., Claremont had hoped to bring in neighboring La Verne — which operates its own water system — to serve Claremont residents.
Over the summer, the two parties went to court in an eminent domain case considered the first of its kind in California. At trial, Golden State attorneys alleged La Verne’s operations have exposed customers there to lead and E. coli contamination, the latter resulting from fecal matter.
In rejecting Claremont’s efforts, the judge found La Verne’s operations inadequate, saying La Verne exposed residents of houses built before 1986 to unsafe levels of lead in drinking water from Aug. 31, 2006 through June 24, 2013.
“La Verne is not as qualified as Golden State to maintain the safety and reliability of water provided in the Claremont service area,” Judge Richard Fruin writes in his Nov. 10 tentative decision.
Claremont, the judge said, never explained why La Verne had errors in testing and reporting the high lead levels or the E. coli incident. It also failed to show what safeguards La Verne has put in place since to ensure the problems don’t reoccur.
Bevin Handel, Claremont spokeswoman, said Wednesday the city does not comment on ongoing litigation but said the statement of tentative decision is just that, tentative, and the city has 15 days from the day the decision was handed down to respond.
On Wednesday, the Claremont City Council decided in closed session to direct its attorneys prepare a response identifying any inaccuracies, omissions and errors of law.
Fruin will have 50 days to consider the city’s written response and issue a final decision, Handel said.
La Verne administrators issued a statement Thursday in response to Fruin’s tentative ruling.
LA VERNE RESPONDS
“Judge Fruin’s tentative decision was solely based upon information presented at trial and unfortunately, does not reflect a complete picture of La Verne’s water operations,” the statement said. “While La Verne did indeed experience some water quality concerns in the past, they were responded to immediately and to the complete satisfaction of state health department regulators.”
In the statement, La Verne administrators said the city has carried out a number of system improvements designed to enhance water quality and reliability, including adding corrosion control and enhanced disinfection systems, revising procedures to reduce water age throughout the system and increasing sampling and monitoring.
La Verne administrators said the allegation that residents of area homes built before 1986 were exposed to elevated lead levels “is exaggerated and not supported by the facts.”
But Golden State lawyers presented evidence in court that La Verne selectively re-sampled lead test results from various sites which allowed La Verne to pass the lead tests in 2006 and 2009-10.
City administrators said initial test results for lead and copper in 2006 and 2009 showed elevated levels of lead in a number of samples.
“However, specific instructions must be followed to obtain a valid sample and our follow-up review uncovered a variety of sampling errors. These sample results were invalidated with the approval of local heath regulators and repeat samples were obtained,” the statement says. “Ultimately, the lead and copper results for 2006 and 2009 were both found to be within limits and compliant.”
Fruin’s tentative decision says that La Verne provided “material misrepresentations” in its consumer confidence reports for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.
For example, the 2012 consumer confidence informed La Verne residents that no sites had exceeded the action level for lead, but in fact three sites did.
La Verne sent the California Department of Public Health water reports, but it was only in 2012 that the state found the city to be out of compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule, according to the city statement. The Lead and Copper Rule requires the monitoring of water systems for lead and copper levels at consumers’ taps, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, which about two years ago took over drinking water oversight from the state Department of Public Health.
Under the rule, if lead or copper levels exceed certain levels, steps must be taken to control the problem and in the case of lead, public notification is also required.
In an email, Andrew DiLuccia, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board, wrote that “La Verne had lead action level exceedances in October 2012 and December 2012, with no exceedance since then.”
The state notified La Verne it was exceeding lead maximums and was directed to educate the public and conduct a lead and corrosion control study, according to DiLuccia’s email.
E. COLI TROUBLES
The tentative decision says there were also inconsistencies in reporting E. coli. In 2012, the city should have noted that there were two positive samples for E. coli, not one. The report should have also noted that at least one was a maximum-level violation.
“The court is particularly concerned about the misreporting on the consumer confidence reports because the repeated failure to accurately report bad results suggests concealment and that in turn suggests inattention by supervisory personnel to accurate reporting to the public,” Fruin wrote.
The consumer confidence report is a summary of all of the water system’s water quality information for the previous year and contains information that is provided to customers by July 1 every year, wrote DiLuccia in his email. La Verne did not include a total coliform violation and lead exceedance in the consumer confidence report.
In the case of the total coliform violation, the city notified the affected customers “which would require 24 hours’ notice after learning of the violations. For the lead, the city was required to conduct public education on lead, which the city did by providing information on lead within the bills to their customers,” DiLuccia wrote.
For two years, there were cases in which the level of lead in samples from homes in La Verne violated the California Department of Public Health’s maximum of 15 parts per billion, Claremont representative said in court in August.
Claremont maintained those violations were self-discovered and self-reported, and there were no reports of illnesses or injuries.
As for the E. coli violation, it occurred in 2011 and La Verne promptly notified all the homeowners affected, which attorneys for Claremont said was limited to 180 homes. The city delivered bottled water with instructions to boil any water before use. The issue was resolved in two days.
La Verne’s statement confirms that account.