Oct 04, 2016

Class Action Lawsuit Filed by Families in Fresno, Calif.

Residents allege that city and private contractors caused dangerous levels of lead, toxic substances in water supply

gavel, court, lawsuit, fresno, california, lead, water quality

Residents of northeast Fresno, Calif., filed a class action lawsuit in the California Superior Court for the County of Fresno, alleging that the city of Fresno and private contractors caused dangerous levels of lead and other toxic substances to leach into their water supply. The lawsuit asks for a jury trial.

The plaintiffs allege that in 2004, the city of Fresno changed the residential water supply from groundwater to surface water despite clear warnings from consultants that the change would alter the water chemistry and result in pipe corrosion, causing lead to contaminate the city's drinking water.

According to the suit, thousands of northeast Fresno-area residents were further affected when, between 2008 and 2012, the city and its private contractors installed water meters on properties, improperly connecting brass meters to galvanized piping. The brass-to-galvanized piping connection violated industry standards, accelerating corrosion of pipe that increased the risk of contamination by lead and other hazardous metals.

Esther Berezofsky, attorney with the environmental law firm Williams Cuker Berezofsky, represents residents filing the class action. "The city and other responsible government agencies were negligent in their duty to properly monitor water, report results of water quality testing to the state as required, and ensure its residents receive safe drinking water," she said.

Berezofsky was lead counsel in the New Jersey water contamination cancer cluster portrayed in the Pulitzer prize-winning book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin and represents plaintiffs in Flint, Mich.; Hoosick Falls, N.Y.; Warminster, Pa.; and other communities experiencing environmental problems. Williams Cuker Berezofsky is co-counsel in the lawsuit with California law firms Boucher LLP of Woodland Hills and the Valencia law firm of Owen, Patterson & Owen LLP.

Ray Boucher of Boucher LLP said residents of northeast Fresno have been seriously impacted by the shortcuts of the city of Fresno and other governmental agencies and their contractors. Boucher previously has handled corrosive pipe and other contamination cases, including his representation of plaintiffs in the In re Galvanized Steel Pipe Litigation, a class action involving defective galvanized pipe on behalf of Santa Clarita, Calif., residents.

According to the court filing, when complaints of discolored water first surfaced from the community—beginning as early as 2004—the city and other governmental agencies ignored them. Instead of investigating and finding a solution, the city of Fresno assured residents that their water was safe. Yet the city failed to test the water and ignored its responsibility to report the complaints to the State Water Resources Board as required.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard for lead in water is 15 ppb. According to city testing, 40% of Fresno homes tested had water that exceeded the acceptable level. According to EPA, lead exposure, especially in children, can lead to damage of the nervous system, hyperactivity, lower IQ, learning disabilities, impaired hearing and anemia. In rare cases, exposure to lead in water can cause seizures, coma and potentially death. Pregnant women and their unborn children also are at risk for "slow or low growth" of the baby or premature birth.

Diminished home values also are a concern. In court documents, the residents allege lead contamination has substantially decreased the value of their homes, diminishing their residential investment and making it difficult to sell their property. They have sustained other economic damages as well, including replumbing their homes and paying the city for contaminated water while purchasing bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

The class action complaint asks the court to require the city to solve the water treatment plant problems and abide by its duties to residents to, among other things, provide clean and safe water. The class action also names as defendants the city of Fresno's Department of Public Utilities and private contractors retained by the city. The case is Micheli et al. v. City of Fresno, County of Fresno, Calif., Superior Court Case No. 16CECG02937.