This article was produced by SJV Water, the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ). This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), California Health Report, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, Circle of Blue, Colorado Public Radio, Columbia Insight, The Counter, High Country News, New Mexico In Depth and SJV Water. The project was made possible by a grant from the Water Foundation with additional support from INN. For earlier stories in the Tapped Out series, click here.
This Central Valley Town Has a Carcinogen in its Water. Why Are Solutions So Slow?
By Claudia Boyd-Barrett, California Health Report
December 14, 2021
On the dusty outskirts of Bakersfield, Rosa Perez and her family are living without a basic housing amenity — clean water. Though they pay the water bill each month, what comes out of the taps is laced with a chemical that California admits could make the family of four more likely to develop cancer. Perez, 43, would rather spend some of her meager farmworker income on bottled water than see that come to pass.
Two years ago, a neighbor knocked on the family’s door in the small town of Fuller Acres. The drinking water supply was contaminated, the neighbor said. Didn’t they get the notice?
They may have gotten it, but they couldn’t read it. Perez and her husband speak Spanish, and the notices the water company sent, alerting them to the carcinogen in their water, were in English. The couple immediately switched to using bottled water for themselves and their two school-age children. But Perez still worries what many years of consuming the tap water might have done to her family’s health.
“What if my kids get sick?” she said, sitting inside her modest, three-bedroom home on a recent afternoon, a half-opened pack of bottled water behind her on a nearby chair.
Fuller Acres’ water contains 1,2,3-Trichloropropane, known as 1,2,3-TCP, a byproduct of agricultural soil fumigants used extensively across the Central Valley from the 1940s through the 1980s. Experts say the chemical is highly carcinogenic, even at low levels. Although there is no research on humans, studies show that mice who consumed or inhaled the chemical developed tumors in multiple organs, including the liver, stomach and kidneys. California began regulating the chemical in 2017, setting the allowable limit for its presence in drinking water at the tiniest, detectable amount, or 5 parts per trillion — a testament to its toxicity. Fuller Acres’ water has consistently tested at around 15 parts per trillion since 2018, when the state began requiring water companies to monitor for the chemical. It’s one of almost 400 public water systems in California with 1,2,3-TCP levels above the legal limit.
Water contamination, including with cancer-causing chemicals like 1,2,3-TCP, is a problem for millions of people across the United States, according to the Environmental Working Group. Low-income communities of color, such as Fuller Acres, are particularly hard hit. Due to decades of environmental racism, these communities are often also exposed to polluted air, oil and gas production or toxic-waste sites – exacerbating the potential impact of water contamination. Although California has set high standards for controlling some chemicals in water, including 1,2,3-TCP, actual enforcement and removal of contaminants is generally slow, and frequently stymied by high treatment costs and antiquated water infrastructure. Meanwhile, polluters rarely have to answer for the health impacts their actions may have caused.
‘This notice contains very important information’
In Fuller Acres, community members and advocates said water officials should be doing more to warn people about the presence of 1,2,3-TCP. Given the chemical’s long history of local use in agriculture and tendency to seep into groundwater, residents in Fuller Acres and many other communities in the Central Valley have likely been ingesting the contaminant for decades, long before the state began regulating it.
Almost 80 percent of residents in Fuller Acres are Latinx, but the water company did not send out information about 1,2,3-TCP in Spanish. Instead, the notices had a sentence in Spanish at the top saying, “This notice contains very important information about your drinking water. Please speak with someone who can translate it.” Fuller Acres Mutual Water Company director Everett McGhee said the notices were based on templates provided by the state, and that he and the water billing manager do not speak Spanish or have the ability to translate the notices themselves.
Officials with the state water board’s Division of Drinking Water confirmed that the sentence in Spanish is all the district needs for these types of notices under current regulations.
But Bryan Osorio, a community solutions advocate with the nonprofit Community Water Center, said the state’s noticing requirements for Spanish speakers fall short of what residents need to understand their water situation. He works in other small, primarily Spanish speaking communities in the Central Valley that have water contamination and frequently meets residents who don’t know there’s a problem with the water. Many are also unaware of other, related issues, such as the availability of free well water testing and bottled water programs in some communities, because they don’t get notified in Spanish about those either. And many small districts are too stretched or lack the capacity to provide translation when it’s needed.
Not providing translated information shifts the burden onto residents, who often “don’t know why they should (seek out translation) if they can’t understand what the main message is,” Osario said.
To ensure people have equitable access to information about their water supply, the state should require districts to provide full translations of the notices in Spanish, he said. The state also needs to invest in outreach to non-English speakers in general.
“It’s just incredible to see how neglected, how overlooked communities of color and non-English speaking communities are because of the lack of capacity at the local level and, in this case, the regional or state-level with the minimal requirements,” Osario said.
“I think it’s a matter of how we prioritize disadvantaged communities. Something that advocates have been pushing for years is, how do we make government more inclusive? How do we make agencies more inclusive to the communities that they’re trying to represent?”
California requires translations of many other types of notices, such as health care documents, when the agencies sending them receive federal or state funds and a certain threshold of the recipients speak the same language. For the state’s low-income health program, known as Medi-Cal, for example, notices must be translated when at least 5 percent of recipients speak a language other than English, or if there are at least 3,000 people who speak that language.
Residents said they’re also frustrated with the slow pace of efforts to clean up the community’s water. The California State Water Resources Control Board has been sending Fuller Acres violation notices since 2018, and gave the district a deadline of May 2021, to get the water into compliance. But the deadline came and went, and the water is still contaminated. The state can fine water districts for not meeting these deadlines, but Tricia Wathen, Central California section chief for the State Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water, said there are no plans to fine Fuller Acres because the district is making an effort to resolve the problem.
A notice the water company sent to customers in July estimated it would be another three years before the problem is resolved. McGhee blamed state regulators for the slow progress. He said Fuller Acres has been trying to get a state construction permit to install filters, and additional funding to help pay for the work, but the process is time consuming. The state has also proposed that Fuller Acres consolidate water operations with the nearby town of Lamont, adding to the holdup, he said.
Wathen said these types of infrastructure projects are complicated and take time. “I think a lot of times people think, ‘Oh, well, let’s just put in treatment. It should take two months,’” she said. “Just to plan it, design it, go out to bid and do construction, that’s a year and a half, and that’s assuming you have the funding and everything else worked out.”
The slowness has human consequences. While the state and local water board officials work on the problem on their computers and in meeting rooms, many residents of Fuller Acres are drinking the water, showering with it, and using it to cook meals for their families.
Was it the water?
On a recent November afternoon, a group of neighbors gathered at the home of Alberto and Maria Dolores Martinez, two retired farmworkers who harvested grapes, to discuss their concerns about Fuller Acres’ water. In recent months, they’d been trying to pressure the Fuller Acres Mutual Water Company to get the water cleaned up and to inform people about the risks of drinking it. Speaking in Spanish, the group quickly tallied eight residents in the vicinity who were sick from cancer or had died of cancer. They included two neighbors in a house up the street, the wife of a friend and someone’s mother. Most cases were stomach cancer.
“It worries me,” Luis Gomez said. “What if I get sick?”
“I worry all the time,” Maria Martinez added. “Sometimes I worry even bathing in it.”
Nicanor Guillen, talked about how his wife had died of stomach cancer at 36 years old, leaving behind five school-age children. His oldest daughter also got cancer, at age 11, he said. The daughter survived, but spent most of high-school getting treatment for a tumor in her leg.
Around 2011, a salesperson for water filters tested his tap water and informed him it was contaminated.
“We drank it for years,” Guillen said in Spanish. “We never got a letter to say we couldn’t. We used it for everything. My mind immediately went to the death of my wife. I wondered if she got cancer because she was drinking the water. I felt bad. Maybe the enemy was right here in my house all along.”
Emma de la Rosa, a community organizer with the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability said public health officials should take heed of residents’ health concerns, perhaps by conducting a study to find out if cancer rates in Fuller Acres are above the norm.
Levels of 1,2,3-TCP in Fuller Acres’ two water wells are about three times California’s allowable limit. At that amount, no one is going to get sick from drinking a glass or two, said Paul Tratnyek, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Health at Oregon Health and Science University, and an expert on the chemical. The problem with 1,2,3-TCP is that it doesn’t break down, so once it’s in the groundwater it stays there indefinitely. When people drink that water over time, even if the amount is very small, their risk of getting cancer increases, he said. That’s because the chemical is thought to slowly damage DNA.
Not everyone will fall ill after being regularly exposed to the chemical, Tratnyek said, but it does mean that “some people lost some family members when they shouldn’t have.”
Fuller Acres Mutual Water Company notices tell people they can still drink the water – that it’s only a problem if people drink it over “many years.” Notices don’t specify how many. 1,2,3-TCP can also be inhaled in shower water vapor, albeit at lower amounts, Wathen, of the state water board, said. She advised people to have a window open or other type of ventilation while showering.
Getting 1,2,3-TCP out of drinking water is difficult and expensive. Communities throughout the Central Valley, including Fuller Acres, have sued Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, the companies allegedly responsible for putting the chemical in fumigants and selling it to farmers. Although the companies deny any wrongdoing, they’ve settled dozens of lawsuits over the matter, paying out millions to local water systems to install filtration systems, including an undisclosed amount to Fuller Acres in late 2019.
There have been no payouts or apologies to residents for their likely exposure to the carcinogen for decades and for what it may have done to their health.
Even with the settlements, many water systems, including Fuller Acres’, don’t have enough funds to cover maintaining and operating treatment systems over the long haul, and the state does not fund the long-term costs. Many are also grappling with crumbling water infrastructure, an unrelated but also expensive problem that has complicated efforts to get 1,2,3-TCP treatment filters installed.
Consumer water filters that use activated carbon, such as Brita pitchers, may remove some of the 1,2,3-TCP in drinking water, but that hasn’t been quantified yet, said UC Merced environmental systems researcher, Hope Hauptman. Reverse osmosis units likely wouldn’t, because volatile organic compounds pass through the membrane, she added.
Washen said the state does sometimes provide funding to districts to provide point-of-use filters to all customers as an interim measure, if their water contains certain contaminants that don’t evaporate, such as arsenic. But completely removing the threat of 1,2,3-TCP would require a whole-house filtration system so that it’s removed from shower water as well, and there is no state funding for that.
A Few Points Short of ‘Hazardous’ For Everyone
Attributing cancer to a particular cause is notoriously difficult. Aside from the contaminated water, Fuller Acres’ approximately 600 residents are hemmed in by traffic, agriculture and heavy industry. A giant oil refinery sits across the street from the community. Abandoned oil wells dot the landscape. Trucks blast fumes into people’s homes as they travel along State Route 184, which borders the community. Pesticides from nearby almond orchards and grape fields routinely drift into homes, residents said, and because many people are farmworkers they’re also exposed to pesticides at work. A lack of sidewalks means dust and dirt accumulate along the sides of the road and get kicked up by the wind and into people’s lungs.
On the day the California Health Report visited the community in November, a heavy smog coated the landscape, rendering the skyline invisible beyond about a half mile. The forecast for the day was “haze.” The air quality was “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” a few index points short of “hazardous” for everyone. The air smelled of diesel and manure. Residents said it was a typical day.
The preponderance of contaminants in the Central Valley make it virtually impossible to tease apart the extent to which individual chemicals like 1,2,3-TCP are responsible for ill health effects, said Colleen Naughton, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at UC Merced. There’s also a lack of community-specific health data that’s accessible to the public. Many residents, some of whom are undocumented immigrants, also don’t have access to health care.
Still, Naughton and one of her graduate students recently tried to assess the cancer risk posed by another common Central Valley water contaminant — nitrates. They found that people living in low-income communities with nitrates in the water suffered twice the rate of thyroid cancer.
Naughton said she’d like to study the correlation between cancers and 1,2,3-TCP next, although funding for that type of complex research is limited. In the meantime, she and Hauptman have urged the federal government to adopt the same 1,2,3-TCP regulations as California. The chemical has been detected in groundwater in other states, including Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina and New Mexico. There is currently no federal limit for 1,2,3-TCP in drinking water.
Hauptman said residents want and deserve to know what chemicals like 1,2,3-TCP are doing to their health. “It’s the first thing people ask,” she said.
It may be challenging to come up with a firm conclusion, but Hauptman thinks “you could probably find patterns if you look at enough data points.”
Allowing the links between water contaminants and health consequences to remain vague benefits polluters, Tratnyek said.
“There’s no way the community can really pin that down in a specific, smoking gun kind of sense,” he said. “And the chemical companies are very good at arguing that you can’t prove that.”
‘Talk is easy’
Many Fuller Acres residents see the 1,2,3-TCP problem as a symptom of a bigger problem. Again and again, residents expressed frustration at what they see as political disregard from officials for small, low-income farmworker communities like theirs, where the median household income is less than $33,000 a year and many residents are undocumented immigrants.
For example, local officials exempted all four area fuel refineries in 2019 from fully complying with a new state air quality rule, including the Kern Oil & Refining Co. across the road from Fuller Acres, which processes 25,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The state says it’s trying to address environmental inequities, including by identifying communities disproportionately impacted by pollution using a pioneering screening tool. In the case of the four refineries, state attorney general, Rob Bonta, and environmental groups used that tool to successfully sue San Joaquin Valley air regulators, forcing them to rewrite the rules.
But when it comes to protecting low-income people from water contaminants, there doesn’t seem to be much urgency, Fuller Acres residents said. McGhee, though not personally concerned about 1,2,3-TCP being a health problem, said he’s frustrated that the state hasn’t provided the community with money to help clean up the water.
“There’s a lot of money that the state says they have to give to these low-income communities, but we haven’t seen any of it,” he said. “Talk is easy, but coming up with the cash is something else.”
Pablo Trevino, a Fuller Acre Mutual Water Company’s board member, said the organization is doing its best to fix the 1,2,3-TCP problem. Thanks to the settlement, the company has enough money to install filtration and maintain it for 10 years, he said, although it’s unclear how the water district will pay for maintenance after that. He said the district is fighting the state’s proposal to consolidate with Lamont because it fears that would raise rates for customers and take even longer than installing filtration itself.
Karen Nishimoto, a senior water engineer with California’s water board, said the state is working with the community to come up with a solution that is sustainable over the long term. The state can force consolidation if necessary, she said.
De La Rosa said state leaders need to improve their oversight of small, mutual water companies like Fuller Acres to ensure they properly inform community members about contaminants and the risks to their health, and operate with transparency. Residents need to have the opportunity to participate in board meetings, elect board members they trust, and receive information about their water in Spanish.
Lawmakers need to figure out better ways to balance the interests of industry with protecting people’s health, said Angel Fernandez-Bou, an environmental engineer who collaborates with the Union of Concerned Scientists on clean water issues. Figuring out cleaner ways to farm, produce energy and create jobs is particularly urgent in the era of climate change, which is exacerbating problems of pollution and access to clean water. According to clean water advocates, there are still dozens of potentially harmful contaminants making their way into water across the United States that are not being regulated or adequately studied.
“If we want to solve the problem we should have everyone on board and invested to do what’s best for everyone, not just for a few people,” Fernandez-Bou said.
Perez, meanwhile, worries that other community members still don’t know their water is contaminated. Those who couldn’t read the notice in English and didn’t have a neighbor knock on their door. And she feels for the farmworker families who can’t afford bottled water, even though they know the tap water could slowly be harming their health.
“It’s like we’re forgotten,” she said.
Featured image: The Kern Oil & Refining Co. plant photographed from Fuller Acres. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.