CALIFAS: Pescadero migrants drank well water with dangerously high levels of nitrates

Pescadero migrants drank well water with dangerously high levels of nitrates

Link to article: http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_15119587?nclick_check=1

By Julia Scott
San Mateo County Times

Posted: 05/19/2010 03:22:58 PM PDT

Updated: 05/20/2010 11:09:27 AM PDT

PESCADERO — Families living at two labor camps in rural Pescadero have been drinking unhealthy levels of nitrate-contaminated water for years, possibly even a decade, a San Mateo County Times investigation has found.

About 50 people — 28 farmworkers and their families — were evicted from their barracks and trailers south of Pescadero on May 14 after county health officials discovered they were drinking and cooking with nitrate-tainted water more than six times the public health limit. Another camp with at least 25 residents was closed on May 18 for identical reasons.

The families are tenants of “Red” Marchi, their employer and owner of Marchi’s Central Farm. The farm grows 300 acres of Brussels sprouts, leeks and other vegetables in and around Pescadero.

The untreated water in some kitchens and bathrooms tested as high as 290 milligrams per liter for nitrates, according to Dean Peterson, director of San Mateo County’s Environmental Health Services Division. The federal health limit is 45 milligrams per liter.

Peterson and Marchi say no one is living at either labor camp anymore. But Kerry Lobel, executive director of Pescadero-based community nonprofit group Puente de la Costa Sur, says most families are still there because they have nowhere else to go.

“It would be a tremendous disaster for people to be forced to move from there with no other alternative,” said Lobel. “The reality is when there’s no housing available and you have children in school, it’s not easy for people to move.”

Residents have been told not to drink, bathe in or cook with the nitrate-tainted water, which comes from the ground beneath the property. Some have been showering at the local high school and drinking bottled water supplied by Marchi, according to Lobel.

The Bay Area News Group reported Monday that nitrates have been found in the wells that supply drinking water to more than 2 million Californians over the past 15 years. Yet government regulators have failed to make controlling nitrates a high priority, even as it has become the most common groundwater contaminant in the country.

Nitrates are linked to blue baby syndrome, which cuts off oxygen to essential organs in infants. It can also affect pregnant women and immuno-compromised adults.

Lobel estimated that between five and eight infants are living in both labor camps and possibly some pregnant women as well.

The county might never have discovered the problem if not for a tip they got around the time of their annual building inspection of Marchi’s camps on April 29. Nitrate levels in the tap water were found to be six times higher than the well water itself, although the well water was also heavily contaminated with nitrates.

Marchi is required to send the water to a lab once a year to test for nitrates, but he failed to do the testing in 2009, according to records. The county has never tested the wells. It relies on landowners of the county’s 19 labor camps to provide potable water but does not check to make sure they are doing so.

If testing never occurs, residents are not notified that their water is polluted.

“We had never gotten complaints. We had never gotten any information that the water wasn’t potable,” said Peterson.

But county records obtained by the San Mateo County Times tell a different story.

A report prepared by a staff member in Peterson’s office in March 2010 notes that the well at the labor camp that was red-tagged on May 14 has a history of nitrate contamination, particularly during the dry season.

The report recommends the water be treated to avoid contamination but does not require the treatment, suggesting only that Marchi “should make controlling nitrate a high priority.”

Some labor camps are so small that they legally fly under the county’s radar. That was the case for the smaller Marchi camp on Bean Hollow Road, which houses about 25 adults and children. County tests detected nitrates in tap water at six times the legal limit, but officials don’t know how long people have been exposed to dirty water.

Marchi isn’t required to test the well there or report the results to county health officials.

“We haven’t been looking at water quality at a lot of these places. It’s really opened our eyes to the fact that we need to be out there, looking at all aspects of it and not just taking the word of the farmers,” said Peterson.

Going forward, Peterson says his staff will either test or personally supervise annual well testing at all labor camps.

Marchi said he was “very surprised” about the nitrates. He said none of his tenants ever drank the water anyway, using bottled water they bought for themselves or that he offered them.

“I gave them water when they asked for it. I drank the tap water from my unit, and I never had no problems,” said Marchi.

He said they did cook with the water. Boiling nitrate-contaminated water concentrates the nitrates, making it even more dangerous to consume.

Marchi said no one is living in the evicted camps but added that he had purchased potable water from the Santa Cruz municipal water supply and used it to fill up the water wells “in case someone accidentally wanted to drink it.”

Families at Marchi’s larger labor camp, just off Highway 1, could have been drinking dangerous levels of nitrates for as long as a decade.

The county’s eviction order barred Marchi from using a spring on his property as a drinking water source for residents, since nitrate levels there were off the charts. The spring was not a registered water source and has never been tested before. Marchi said he used it “now and then” in the summer months when water levels were low for the past 10 years.

The county won’t reissue a housing permit for the two labor camps until Marchi comes up with a certified short- and long-term plan to provide clean water. Marchi has spoken with a local company about installing two commercial water treatment systems.

Nitrates have tainted Pescadero’s drinking water for years. The county installed a well to serve central Pescadero in the early 1980s after the groundwater wells at the local elementary school and under several homes developed serious nitrate problems.

A byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer and leaky septic tanks, nitrates seep into groundwater and stay there for decades, even forever.

The wells supplying water to Marchi’s labor camps are 30 feet away from the fields the men work in.

Marchi’s Central Farm also has a long history of housing safety violations, county records show. Peterson’s department referred that case to the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office this week.

Contact Julia Scott at 650-348-4340.

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