HAYWARD (CBS 5) -- When you turn on the tap, you assume that water comes from a trusted source. But several Hayward families said they had no idea what they were drinking.
They may live right off Interstate 880 in Hayward. But these households are living off the grid.
The water should be cool and refreshing. "It smells like mildew," said Katrina Rodriguez.
"Sometimes the water will smell like sulfur," said neighbor Patt Rose.
They're talking about the tap water and what these neighbors describe as a foul funk flowing to six homes on Harvey Avenue in Hayward.
"It would be brown before it turned clear," said Rodriguez.
"Grit, more grit and sand," Rose said.
Rose noticed the problem shortly after moving in. "One of my dogs got sick," she said.
Then it was the appliances. Rose told CBS 5 she had to replace three washing machines and several shower heads.
The exact same problem was playing out right next door. "We are like on our third washer," Rodriguez said. "Showerheads are also failing. I mean breaking at the neck."
For Rodriguez, the final straw was a bath she ran for her 2-year-old twins. "It was yellow. It had an overwhelming smell of Clorox," she described.
Rodriguez even saved a bottle of the water. When our reporter took a whiff of it, it really reeked. Rodriguez said her family has been getting sick a lot as well.
She complained to the landlord, but that went nowhere. "All he would say is the water is good. It's good to drink. It's good to bathe in," said Rodgriguez.
So the desperate mom turned to the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the City of Hayward. But Rodriguez said, "They told me they couldn't do anything for me."
The reason: the tap water in these homes isn't coming from the city. It's coming from right behind Rose's house.
"When I went back there and saw what I saw, I just couldn't believe it," said Rodriguez.
Inside a shack, there was a well. Also in the shack, on a makeshift shelf, a row of empty bleach bottles. "They put like of a cup of it every month or something," Rose told CBS 5. The Clorox was apparently poured straight into the well.
It was something the neighbors said they were never told about when they signed their leases. "We thought we were getting city water. I mean everybody who moves into a residential neighborhood thinks they are getting city water," Rodriguez said.
The four other families living on the property also complained of smelly water. But none would voice their complaints on camera, fearing retaliation from the landlord. "There will be retaliation," Rose told CBS 5. "I know so. He'll probably sue us."
It turns out their landlord has a reputation for litigating. At the Alameda County courthouse, CBS 5 found their landlord Richard Thomas' name on more than 200 lawsuits. Tenants sued Thomas for trashy living conditions and un-returned cleaning deposits and Thomas countersued tenants for almost everything under the sun.
Since these renters were getting nowhere, they asked CBS 5 to help. Using a sterilized kit from a professional lab we took samples from tap water in both homes. The water in the Rodriguez home came back positive for coliform bacteria.
"Fortunately you brought it to our attention," said Ron Torres, supervising health specialist for Alameda County Environmental Health.
After CBS 5 took the test results to the agency, Torres went out to do more tests. "It's contaminated," said Torres.
As for those bottles of Clorox, Torres said the risks included skin, mucous membrane and eye irritation.
Torres said it's up to the owner to make sure the well water's healthy and the county is supposed to police that, but he admitted it's been a low priority. Torres also acknowledged there is no involvement from the city or state and no remediation by the county.
CBS 5 paid an unannounced visit to the owner, Richard Thomas, because he refused to answer any of our calls. Thomas claimed he had evidence the well was recently tested and asked that we wait. So we waited. When Thomas returned he was empty-handed, and asked us to leave.
While he shut the door on CBS 5, it's his renters who can't shut off the tainted water.
"People should be warned. People move in here with children," said Rose. "I feel this man is poisoning my family," said Rodriguez.
The county told CBS 5 they can't force Thomas to hook up to the grid, even though a water main runs right outside the property.
But Jennifer Clary, a water policy analyst for the national nonprofit Clean Water Action, said with five connections or more, a well like the one on Harvey Avenue is considered to be a public water system. The county does have the power to shut it down if it's contaminated and if the landlord refuses to mitigate.
For help on any water issues the public can contact Clean Water Action at www.cleanwateraction.org/ca
(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)
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