Storm water at Mule Creek State Prison.

In April of 2018, Amador County Public Health received the results of domestic well, monitoring well and surface water sampling near the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP).

All adjacent wells to MCSP test for Fecal Coliform and E. Coli (Escherichia coli). Benzoic acid, a fungistatic compound widely used as a food preservative showed in test results. Bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate was also encountered in some wells, including one result above the public drinking water MCL. This chemical is used as a plasticizer in PVC pipe, household items and IV tubing, and among other things. Numerous constituents were detected in the samples from the stormwater system and the onsite monitoring well, “none of which are for human consumption,” including a cancer-causing chemical tetrachloroethylene.

Couple those findings with the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s (RWQCB) own staff admitting commingling of the three sewer systems at MCSP is occurring. CDCR’s stormwater releases into Mule Creek, more than 17,434,876 gallons in the past 5 months, carry volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs).

Based on the results of the tests in 2018, the RWQCB required CDCR to continue to sample the domestic wells on a semiannual basis for no less than eight samples. And then … nothing. Nothing.

Where are these reports? What about contamination, opening slide gates and dumping industrial waste into Mule Creek? Whose responsible for the four workers that got sick working on a culvert they now claim was built to hide the contamination spewing from MCSP?

We decided to ask the RWQCB for some more answers, and allowed David Anderson, one of the culvert workers who became seriously ill while digging the culvert, his opinion on the responses.

Here’s what Kari Holmes, P.E., Supervising Water Resources Control Engineer, Compliance and Enforcement Program of the RWQCB had to say.

Ledger Dispatch question: The seven domestic wells that you indicated a few weeks ago had been tested were in fact tested about two years ago. The cover letter issued by Kenny Croyle on April 18, 2018 advised the Environmental Health Department that the wells in question would be tested on a semi-annual basis with no less than eight tests. Where are the other test results?

Kari Holmes, RWQCB: CDCR submitted a workplan to sample the private wells as required by the February 2018 13267 Order, which was conditionally approved on 23 March 2018. The 13267 Order requires quarterly sampling to begin starting in the third quarter of 2018. CDCR submitted a letter to the Regional Board on 18 September 2018 stating it was unwilling to perform domestic well sampling. Board staff performed the initial sampling of the domestic wells in conjunction with Amador County Environmental Health during the first quarter of 2018 in order to quickly get an idea of water quality in those wells. This data was released to the well owners by the County.

David Anderson: It’s galling that CDCR informs the RWQCB they are “unwilling” to comply with domestic well sampling. Once again, CDCR defies the RWQCB and decides what they are willing to do, no matter what the rules say – or who gets hurt. It leaves little doubt as to who is really in charge here. As for Ms. Holmes statement that the well data was released to the well owners by the County, that is factually untrue. Results were never shared with property owners as has been covered in the Ledger Dispatch. Common decency should dictate that the information be shared with the affected well owners as soon as it becomes apparent that the wells are contaminated, especially if the testing originated with the RWQCB. Even more so, as it shows a hazard to their health.

LD question: If there are no further test results, is that the result of CDCR failing to comply with the order directing them to test or has the RWQCB changed its policy?

Kari Holmes, RWQCB: The 14 February 2018 13267 Order is still active, and therefore CDCR is still required to complete that work at this time. In a letter dated 18 September 2018, CDCR formally requested that the Regional Board remove the requirement to sample domestic wells. Board staff is currently conducting a comprehensive review of all monitoring that is required under each of the Regional Board permits for Mule Creek State Prison and will make a determination of what monitoring will be most valuable to require CDCR to conduct moving forward.

David Anderson: To paraphrase Ms. Holmes, as long as CDCR agrees to whatever the Regional Board determines is most beneficial to CDCR for monitoring. The message that Ms. Holmes is teaching all of us here is that anyone can defy a Water Board Order if you determine it to be inconvenient. The response by the RWQCB will be a “comprehensive review” that will no doubt include an evaluation of your political capital measured against the constituency getting screwed. It’s no wonder CDCR does not want to continue testing. There’s nothing in it for them but more bad news and the RWQCB is complicit in allowing it to continue.

LD question: The test results sent to the County Environmental Health Department show contamination of various constituents at all of the wells. Has the RWQCB or CDCR done any investigation as to the source or sources of the groundwater contamination?

Kari Holmes, RWQCB: CDCR has been performing the quarterly groundwater monitoring as required by the WDRs for the monitoring wells located at their facility. The Regional Board and CDCR are continually evaluating groundwater data from those monitoring devices as it comes in.

David Anderson: Please! If the RWQCB does not want to say it is originating from the prison storm water and sewer systems, just say so. I doubt the RWQCB would look any less incompetent than they do now. To say that the RWQCB and CDCR are studying the problem is not just absurd, it is insulting. This problem has persisted for AT LEAST 14 years and likely longer than that. And it’s not getting any better. Just kick the can down the street and “evaluate” it whenever. They aren’t doing the testing. People will get sick, hurt. They already have. I did!

LD question: You earlier indicated the purpose of the MS 4 designation of the storm water discharge would facilitate improved monitoring and testing. Do you see any problem between the domestic well test results in 2018 and an apparent lack of groundwater monitoring since then?

Kari Holmes, RWQCB: The MCSP was enrolled in the Small MS4 General Permit to increase the Regional Board’s regulatory authority over the storm water discharges to Mule Creek. Groundwater monitoring is not required under the Small MS4 General Permit. The CDCR is required to conduct groundwater monitoring by the WDRs. Board staff is currently conducting a comprehensive review of all monitoring that is required under each of the Regional Board permits for Mule Creek State Prison and will make a determination of what monitoring will be most valuable to require CDCR to conduct moving forward.

David Anderson: Ms. Holmes should be reminded that the RWQCB issued a MS4 General Permit despite their own staff’s determination that sewage was being discharged from the storm drain system which makes Mule Creek ineligible for a MS4 category. Nevertheless, she states the MS4 would increase the Regional Boards authority over the storm water discharges. When is that going to happen? CDCR dictates to the RWQCB when they will defy the Water Board and discharge directly into Mule Creek. They also inform the RWQCB of what testing suits their goals and what testing they won’t do. Once again the problem is being studied in a “comprehensive review.” It’s impossible to imagine the RWQCB doing anything timely or not in the best interest of CDCR, whatever CDCR determines that to be.

LD question: Of the seven domestic wells that were tested, has the RWQCB advised the well owners of the results?

Kari Holmes, RWQCB: Regional Board staff confirmed with the Amador County Director of Environmental Health that the County has discussed results with residents. In addition, the Regional Board is charged with protecting the environment and defers to the County in matters of human health.

David Anderson: That will sound really genuine to a jury. The Water Board is only vested with protecting the environment and if someone is hurt or dies, well, take that up with Amador County Environmental Health. It looks as though Amador County is about to be pushed under that on-coming bus. When my crew and I were wading in raw sewage and the RWQCB discovered the “environmental damage,” she expects me to believe they had no duty of care to advise us it was hazardous? No one from the Amador County Environmental Health advised the well owners of their contaminated wells and certainly no one from Amador County Environmental Health stepped forward to address the discharges from the prison. It appears that Best, Best, and Krieger, the law firm Amador County has hired, will soon start earning their fee. You just better hope that they really are the Best.

There will be no further domestic well, monitoring well and surface water sampling tests, including the minimum of eight the RWQCB required CDCR to complete more than two years ago. Additionally, CDCR is going to open the slide gates every time there is a tenth of an inch of rain within an hour, or three-tenths of an inch of rain within 24-hours allowing for the continued release of toxic waste into Mule Creek carrying chemicals, VOCs and SVOCs – defiance of another RWQCB order.

Lots of questions, but few answers. What we do know is the environment isn’t being protected. Neither is public health.