Thursday, September 21, 2000
Jim Hively wasn''t out to bust anyone when he discovered problems with the Moss Landing Harbor District''s water supply earlier this year. He was just doing his job. As the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute''s (MBARI) director of health and safety, Hively regularly checks the potable water supply aboard research vessels before they head out to sea. Early this year as the Western Flyer prepared to depart, Hively made a routine check that came up positive for total coliform, a strong indicator of contamination.
By early spring, after a couple of months of turning up intermittent positive coliform tests on MBARI''s drinking water, Hively called the Monterey County Health Department to report his findings. He spoke initially with Nancy Martella in the environmental health division.
"She told me that the water company is required to do regular tests of their water and that they have consistently come in negative," explains Hively. "So she said it must be a problem within MBARI''s internal plumbing system. I wasn''t offered any other suggestions."
Hively went to work warning his colleagues about MBARI''s water, installing a new water filtration system in the building and trying to pinpoint the problem. After months of fruitless investigation, two weeks ago Hively decided to investigate a new angle and conducted a test outside the MBARI building, as close as possible to the pipes belonging to the local water company, Alco Water Service Moss Landing Division. It came up positive for total coliform.
Now certain that MBARI''s plumbing was not the culprit, Hively called the health department back with the news. According to Mary Anne Dennis, chief of the resource protection branch of the health department, the department immediately sent an official out to do independent sampling on Sept. 5 and 7. Both tests showed the presence of coliform. The investigation also exposed a live frog sitting pretty in his very own 70,000-gallon water tank near the Moss Landing Marine Lab, as well as a "cross-connection," which occurs when a potable water supply gets mixed with other sources, such as sea water.
At that point the health department sprang into action, putting a "boil water" order into effect for Alco''s 177 Moss Landing customers, comforting worried residents, and instructing the company to investigate the source of contamination and clean it up. As of yet, high chlorine levels lingering from the clean-up keep the boil order in place, and Moss Landing residents are still instructed to boil their water for five minutes before ingestion. Just like a camping trip, only minus the stars and the gorp.
Martella, an environmental health specialist trainee who has worked a year in the health department, says her initial response to Hively''s call was a natural one. "I had no reason to believe that anything resulted from Alco''s management of the system," she explains. "I was trying to give him advice based on the next logical explanation."
Since the county health department relies on private water suppliers to self-regulate and accurately report their test results, Martella''s assumptions make sense. Except for one small detail.
In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a civil lawsuit against Robert and Natholyn Adcock--owners of the Moss Landing Division and 10 other public water systems in Monterey County--alleging that the pair deliberately falsified test results submitted to both the county and the state between 1991 and 1994. The EPA case essentially boiled down to a fraud trial, with the plaintiff accusing the Adcocks of doctoring test results in order to conceal bacteria-related health risks to their water customers.
Because the state and county both have jurisdiction over Adcock-owned franchises (any public water service serving under 200 people is managed by the county), the Monterey County Health Department has been fully aware of this case since its inception and actively involved in it. Last week in a groundbreaking federal decision, a U.S. district judge found the Adcocks personally liable for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and subject to fines as high as $27,500 per day, per violation. The Adcocks have firmly maintained their innocence in this matter and deny all the charges.
The county''s reaction to Hively''s call in the face of Alco''s checkered history begs the question: When a discrepancy was noted between tests reported by the Adcocks and tests conducted by a marine safety inspector at a Monterey County Health Department-certified lab, why did the health department assume that the Adcock''s results were more reliable?
"When [Martell] spoke to Mr. Hively, she probably wasn''t aware of the history," says Mary Ann Dennis. Furthermore, she adds, since the suit was filed, Alco has been using an independent commercial laboratory. "One would assume, in view of the charges against them, that they would be operating legally and honestly."
Without elaborating, Dennis says the upshot is that "the health department will consider, in addition to having the samples tested by the independent laboratory, having those samples collected by the laboratory as well."
As of yet, the Adcocks are not currently being charged with any further violations from the Moss Landing case. But EPA senior attorney John Rothman says it is possible that additional liable allegations could be added to the Safe Drinking Water case--which is ongoing as the judge explores further charges against the Adcocks and decides the total fines--or that the health department could make charges.
Speaking of the county, at least and at long last it has warned Moss Landing residents of the possible disease-producing bacteria in their water supply. Moss Landing resident and marine researcher Melissa Wilson ponders how long the water has actually been contaminated. "That''s pretty scary," she says to the news that positive tests have been appearing for several months now. "At least we have plenty of bottled water around the house."