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California Town's Water Tainted With Arsenic For Decades

KETTLEMAN CITY (KPIX 5) -- The safe drinking water act is supposed to protect public drinking water supplies throughout the nation. But Flint Michigan's contaminated water crisis has been a wakeup call, that there's no guarantee.

You may not know the name Kettleman City. But if you have ever driven to Los Angeles you've been through the town. It's a community in the Central Valley where the tap water's been tainted for decades. This is a story about its struggle for change.

In a ritual every other week, a truck pulls up with drinking water - 30 gallons a month that is delivered to every resident of Kettleman City, courtesy of the state. They need it because the tap water is contaminated with arsenic.

Arsenic is a chemical known to cause cancer that's commonly found in groundwater all over the Central Valley. The two wells in Kettleman City are among the worst offenders, pumping up arsenic-laden drinking water in violation of federal limits day after day, month after month and year after year.

"My daughter last year we were watching a movie, and she saw somebody in the movie went to the sink and poured themselves a glass of water, and she said 'oh he's drinking from the sink!' Because she has never lived in a place where you can actually drink from the sink," said Maricela Mares Alatorre, a Kettleman City resident and activist with the non-profit Greenaction.

Maricela supplements her state subsidized water deliveries with bottles. Her daughter Salma never leaves home without one, but not all families can afford that. Many other kids in town drink from the water fountain at school where filters were only installed last month. All 1,500 residents of Kettleman city are forced to use the tap water every day, to cook and shower.

What's most frustrating to many is that the California Aqueduct runs right behind the town, delivering fresh water to Los Angeles. But Kettleman City and Kings' county haven't been able to tap into it. "The money is sitting there, but there are obstacles," said Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle.

Valle says to get the water out of the canal the town needs a water treatment plant. But there's been one delay after the other, year after year - most recently, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard. "The latest information, again based on situations that are out of our hands, environmental standards. We are looking at 2019," said Valle.

Meanwhile residents are getting notices in the mail that seem to play down the risk.

In bold letters they read: "You do not need to use an alternative water supply." Then in smaller lettering: "If you have specific health concerns consult your doctor."

"Give it to people straight, don't give them a lot of baloney about, you know, ask your doctor if arsenic is right for you," said Eric Schaeffer. He's a former head of enforcement at the U.S. EPA and now runs the Environmental Integrity Project, which recently surveyed arsenic levels in farming communities in Texas.

"We found 50,000 people had been exposed to arsenic in their drinking water well above federal health standards for more than a decade," said Schaeffer. He says the federal drinking water limit for arsenic of 10-parts per billion was set for a reason. Anything over that is unsafe. "If you are telling people its not a big deal, well then its no wonder these systems are taking so long to get fixed," said Schaeffer.

He wants states with arsenic problems like Texas and California to step up to the plate, and put money into solutions. But Maricela's not holding out much hope: "It's just a way of life, I think people have become immune," she said.

In fact residents of Kettleman City are in for yet another blow: the current subsidy for those bottled water deliveries is about to run out.





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