Government agencies that oversee thousands of small water suppliers in California don’t have to order the companies to notify their customers when their water is contaminated, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The court ruled Monday in a case brought by about 80 residents of a Carmel Valley mobile home park, who blamed ailments ranging from rotted teeth and brittle bones to lost kidneys on years of drinking water with too much FLUORIDE.
A lawyer for the residents said the unanimous decision leaves customers of small water systems without protection.
“The government agency’s supervisory role is meaningless,” said attorney Brian Burchett, whose clients wanted Monterey County held responsible for their health problems.
“They’re totally at the mercy of the system operator,” who in this case, he said, was untrained and uninsured.
Deputy County Counsel Patrick McGreal countered that state law makes water system operators, not public agencies, responsible for notifying customers about contamination.
Although government agencies regulate the water systems and have a duty to maintain water quality, McGreal said, requiring a county to police an operator’s customer contacts would impose “open-ended liability.”
The ruling applies to the 5,500 water systems in the state that serve fewer than 200 customers. They are regulated by local agencies in 35 counties, including Contra Costa, San Mateo, Marin and Napa, according to state records. The state Department of Public Health oversees small water systems in the other 23 counties. Larger municipal water systems are governed by a separate law.
The suit was filed by people who lived at the 25-trailer Jensen Camp Mobile Home Park in Cachagua from 1995 to 2003. They said the owner, Rick Pinch, who also operated the water system, never told them that his reports to the county showed fluoride content that reached more than four times the safety level.
The county health agency did not order Pinch to fix the system until April 2003, the plaintiffs said. Four months later, Pinch sold the site to two residents, who learned of the contamination and started supplying bottled water to the homes.
The residents’ suit against Pinch is still pending. A state appeals court ruled in September 2007 that they could sue the county as well, for allegedly failing to review the reports and tell Pinch to notify them of the contamination, but the state Supreme Court disagreed.
A supervising agency is required under state law to tell a system operator to monitor water quality, but nothing more, Justice Ming Chin said in Monday’s ruling.
Read the ruling
The ruling in Guzman vs. Monterey County, S157793, can be read at links.sfgate.com/ZHLT.