A handful of San Joaquin Valley cities and public agencies have used millions of dollars meant for filtering contaminated water for entirely unrelated purposes, records and interviews show.
At least 16 cities, school districts and water districts in the region received a total of nearly $7 million in the 1990s from legal settlements with oil and chemical companies that produced a toxic pesticide called DBCP. The oily substance was used by farmers for decades and seeped into underground water sources before it was banned.
But at least five of those agencies, collectively, have spent or loaned out $6 million or more from the settlements on projects unrelated to water quality. Some can't account for how all of the money was spent.
Peter Molligan, a Bay Area attorney who helped some of the cities reach settlements in the DBCP cases, said that despite the fact that many of the settlement agreements said the money was meant for filters and new wells, there were no legal restrictions on how funds could be spent.
But some public health advocates and city officials said using the settlement funds for unrelated projects is irresponsible and could make it more challenging for local governments to pay for ongoing cleanup costs.
"When polluters pay for their messes, local government has the responsibility to take that money and clean it up," said Paul Schramski, the state director of Sacramento-based Pesticide Watch.
Lawsuits bring millions
For two decades starting in 1955, San Joaquin Valley farmers used the sweet-smelling, amber-colored pesticide called DBCP, or dibromochloropropane, to fight root-eating bugs and boost fruits yields by as much as 50%. But the chemical also caused sterility in humans and, in some cases, cancer in laboratory animals.
It was banned in California in 1977, but the pesticide already had contaminated dozens of wells. Fresno alone had to close down 44 -- or about 20% -- of its wells.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Valley cities, water districts and school districts sued DBCP manufacturers. They said cities and districts should be reimbursed for the past and future costs of building new wells and installing massive carbon filters, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All of the lawsuits eventually were settled -- ranging from $293,000 for the Biola Community Service District west of Fresno to $31 million for the city of Fresno. The companies also agreed to reimburse many of the cities for ongoing filtration costs for up to 40 years.
Officials from most cities said they spent the settlement money, as intended, on filters or new wells. The Valley still is dealing with DBCP contamination today, spending hundreds of thousands -- and sometimes millions -- of dollars each year to deal with the mess.
Fresno, for example, started with about $23 million after attorney fees were paid. About $10 million went toward reimbursing the city for new wells it already had built because of DBCP contamination, as stipulated in the settlement agreement, said Henry McLaughlin, who is in charge of the city's water budget.
The rest was set aside in a separate "DBCP fund" and much of it was used to build wells, install filters and expand a water plant. The city has about $8.7 million left.
"All the funds have been used for DBCP remediation," McLaughlin said.
The story is similar in other cities. Clovis, which received $7.1 million, used much of it to reimburse itself for the past cost of filters. It also has used the funds to install a dozen new filters.