A second group of northeast Fresno residents are suing the city over water problems – including lead and discoloration – that they say lasted for years before officials took concerted action to solve the concerns.
Brian Kabateck, an attorney from Los Angeles, is leading the team representing homeowners Jackie Flannery, Guadalupe Meza, Ronda Rafidi, Shann Conner, Marirose Larkin, Patricia Wallace-Rixman, Harry Rixman and Kelly Unruh in the potential class-action suit filed Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court.
The case revolves around water provided by the city’s Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility. It treats canal water from Millerton and Pine Flat lakes to distribute to about 15,000 homes and other water customers throughout that part of the city.
The suit alleges that the city for years ignored reports from residents about discolored water coming from faucets in homes plumbed with galvanized pipes since shortly after the plant opened in 2004. In early 2016, social media posts sparked a realization among homeowners that problems were not isolated to only a few residences, but were more widespread than they had realized.
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The grounds for the suit are similar to one filed last fall by a legal team led by Raymond Boucher, an attorney in Woodland Hills – the problems are related to water chemistry issues at the treatment plant and how the treated water differs from pumped well water that for years exclusively served city residents. Experts last fall said the differences in the water likely caused deposits of scale and rust to be dislodged from inside of galvanized pipes, causing discoloration. Testing of some homes indicated the presence of lead in the water, in some instances at levels higher than “action levels” set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Both suits assert that the city knew before it built the plant, from a consultant’s 1998 report, that a change in the water supply could cause problems for homeowners.
“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 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 new lawsuit states.
Kabateck told The Bee on Wednesday that he believes it is “very likely” that the two cases will ultimately be merged into one. His team, which includes attorney Frank Pitre of Burlingame and Michael Gatto of Oakland, has been working collaboratively with Boucher, New Jersey attorney Esther Berezofsky and Stuart Chandler of Fresno since last year.
The second lawsuit aims to represent owners of homes built with galvanized pipes before 2004, when the treatment plant began producing water. The number of potential clients is unknown, Kabateck said, “but we believe it’s a fairly large number in the thousands.”
Kabateck and Boucher both worked on a 2001 case in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, where more than 4,600 home and condo owners sued developers and pipe manufacturers over defective galvanized pipes imported from South Korea. The case eventually led to a $41 million settlement in which each plaintiff received up to $9,000 to cover the cost of repairs to their homes for damage caused by the faulty plumbing.
The water chemistry issues at the core of the lawsuit could reverberate well beyond northeast Fresno. The city is in the process of building another surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno that would serve many more residents in areas where there is likely a greater concentration of homes plumbed with galvanized pipes. Since last year, Fresno’s public utilities department has been tinkering with treatment strategies to reduce the instances of water discloration; experts are continuing to conduct tests in hopes of prevent a repeat of the problems when the southeast plant becomes operational in 2018.