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Northeast Fresno residents hire lawyers to help them in dispute over water

Massive filters are used in the treatment process at the city of Fresno’s surface water treatment plant on Chestnut Avenue near Behymer Avenue.
Massive filters are used in the treatment process at the city of Fresno’s surface water treatment plant on Chestnut Avenue near Behymer Avenue. Fresno Bee file photo

Fresno officials will meet Wednesday evening with residents in the northeast part of the city to discuss ongoing concerns about discoloration and lead contamination in water coming from homeowners’ faucets.

But residents who are increasingly dissatisfied with the city’s response – and distrustful about the answers they’re receiving – are getting a legal hand from a potent team of attorneys who specialize in class-action injury, product liability and environmental cases. It’s a step that could potentially set the stage for claims against the city and, perhaps, the state of California, and potentially launch the controversy toward a courtroom.

Raymond Boucher, a Southern California attorney, said Tuesday that his Woodland Hills firm Boucher LLP is collaborating with the Valencia law firm of Owen, Patterson & Owen and with Williams Cuker Berzaofsky, a firm in Philadelphia. Boucher is among the attorneys involved in cases related to the leak of natural gas from SoCalGas’s Aliso Canyon underground storage facility in Porter Ranch, and is a board member of Public Justice. The Philadelphia firm is representing residents in Flint, Mich., where the community faces serious and widespread lead contamination in the water supply.

Since January, complaints or reports of discolored water have been lodged with the city by as many as 1,000 or more residents in northeast Fresno – an area served by the city’s Surface Water Treatment Facility near Chestnut and Behymer avenues. The problems appear to be related to the corrosion of galvanized pipes or lead-containing fixtures in homes in that part of the city.

But complaints about discoloration in the area date back to at least 2004, when the treatment plant became operational.

In recent months, Fresno’s water division has been adjusting the water chemistry, including the amounts of corrosion-control chemicals with which canal water at the plant is treated. The city has also undertaken corrosion-control treatment of water pumped from wells, and is now blending well water with surface water at the plant before it is distributed to neighborhoods in northeast Fresno.

Of water samples from 376 homes experiencing discolored water, the city reports that initial testing indicated the presence of lead in 64 homes as of early last week. Lead is a toxic heavy metal, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates corrective action when concentrations are at or above 15 parts per billion Another 86 homes registered lead levels below the 15 ppb threshold, while no lead was detectable in 225 homes.

Boucher said a representative from the Owen firm will be at the meeting on behalf of the legal team, but said it is premature to assess the likelihood of lawsuits over the situation. The first step, he said, is to ensure that the rights of residents to file claims and take legal action are preserved. “There’s no point to do any saber-rattling at this point,” he said. Instead, the initial priority for attorneys will be to collect information so they can advise clients about their rights and how best to ensure that the water problems are fixed, prevent a repeat of the issues, and find out why it happened.

“We want to protect as much as we can everybody’s rights,” Boucher said. “That’s what the claim process is all about. You cannot bring a lawsuit under some circumstances unless there has been a claim.  So the first thing is to maintain the status quo and preserve their rights.”

“Obviously there is a significant amount of investigation and analysis that has to take place,” Boucher added. “The people of northeast Fresno unfortunately feel very much in the dark (and are) leery and uncertain about the information that is coming out, how valid and accurate and complete it is.”

At a press conference last week to discuss the water situation, Mayor Ashley Swearengin said part of the city’s investigation included seeking legal counsel over the prospect of liability in the case. The city consulted with a lawyer who ordinarily represents plaintiffs in liability disputes to assess potential risk over corrosion of household plumbing linked to the city’s water.

Fresno’s water division and the State Water Resources Control Board maintain that water delivered to homes in the city’s pipelines is safe and meets all state and federal standards for drinkability. The concerns, they say, focus on how the blend of surface and pumped water interacts with galvanized household plumbing in affected homes.

IF YOU GO

▪ What: Northeast Fresno water community meeting

▪ When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

▪ Where: Clovis West High School multipurpose room, 1070 E. Teague Ave., Fresno

▪ Who: City of Fresno officials and experts investigating the northeast Fresno water problems. Local, state and federal officials will attend the meeting as well as national water experts hired by the city. Representatives of a Valencia law firm that is working on behalf of residents will also attend the meeting.

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