RIPON (CBS13) — After four students were diagnosed with cancer in as many years, CBS13 has learned that the Ripon Unified School District tested drinking fountain water at Weston Elementary. The water tested positive for the chemical Trichloroethylene (TCE), but parents at Weston were not notified about the water results.
TCE is the chemical at the center of an on-going CBS13 investigation into possible cancer-causing contaminants in the water in the City of Ripon.
The results of the water test are dated days before a highly anticipated April 2019 school board meeting where the district announced the findings of soil tests and assured parents that the soil was safe, but made no mention of the water tests.
CBS13 obtained the water fountain test results through a public records request. They show the presence of TCE in the school’s drinking water at levels high enough that the city would have been required to report them to the state if the chemical had been found in a well.
While the school district does not appear to have a legal obligation to report the findings, parents at Weston say the district had an ethical obligation to notify them.
PARENTS ACCUSE DISTRICT OF HIDING RESULTS
“It not only makes me angry, but it makes me really sad to think that they are hiding information that could harm our children,” said Monica Ferrulli.
Ferrulli’s son Mason, and his friend Kyle were two of the four children diagnosed with cancer at Weston Elementary. There are now as many as 10 kids in the area who’ve been diagnosed with cancer in recent years.
Ferrulli, and Kyle’s mother Kellie, first fought to remove the cell tower on campus. And while they say they haven’t ruled it out as a contributor, they’ve now turned their attention to contaminated water in Ripon.
“How are we ever supposed to trust the district after discovering they not only hid this information from us, but as far as we know, they haven’t done anything to try to fix it,” Ferrulli said.
HOW LONG HAS THE DISTRICT KNOWN?
The water fountain samples at Weston tested positive for 0.56 ug/l of TCE. That’s one-third of the Public Health Goal level for TCE in drinking water and one-ninth of the Maximum Contaminant Limit allowed under federal law. The city must report any results above 0.5 ug/l to state regulators.
The water test results are dated April 5, but the lab tells CBS13 that they first emailed preliminary results to the district on April 2nd and sent the final results on April, 8th, the day of the school board meeting where the district revealed the soil sample results.
A district representative assured parents at the meeting that the soil was safe quoting the soil report that states, “Near-surface soil does not pose a significant risk to human health and the environment.”
However, as we reported in May, the lab did not test the soil for TCE, the chemical of greatest concern for many parents. TCE is known to cause cancer and it is known to be in the groundwater in Ripon. That lab told CBS13 that they didn’t test the soil for TCE because the district didn’t ask them to.
CBS13 has identified the source of the contaminated water on campus. The City of Ripon confirmed that the water sample taken in March of 2019, included water from a problematic city drinking water well – that the city claimed it had shut down in 2018.
In May, a CBS13 investigation uncovered inaccuracies in the city’s water reports for that well, known as Municipal Well 3, or MW3. The investigation also identified years that the city skipped required testing for TCE in that well altogether.
The city claimed it shut the well off in September of 2018 after water from the well tested positive for TCE related chemicals at 90% of the legal limit. However, after CBS13 questioned the City of Ripon about the Weston water samples taken months later, the city admitted that it had reactivated the well and that MW3 was the source of the chemicals on campus.
In a statement, the city of Ripon explained that the well had been reactivated for a total of 33 hours since it was taken off-line. Adding, “One of the days the well was in use was March 18, 2019, which contributed to the Weston Elementary water quality test results. Nevertheless, these results confirm that Ripon meets all regulatory requirements for safe drinking water.”
The city then pointed us to its April 2019 Public Information Bulletin, assuring residents that the water was safe despite the elevated levels of TCE.
(NOTE: The link on the city’s website was broken at the time of publishing, but the bulletin content is duplicated in this NIXEL alert).
DID THE WELL MEET LEGAL LIMITS?
The city of Ripon says the water at the tap is diluted with a fluctuating mixture from five different city wells. As a result, experts say the levels of TCE in the water fountain that day should have been diluted. They say TCE levels would have likely been higher at the well itself where the city performs the required tests.
CBS13 asked the City of Ripon for their testing data from the well on the day the water fountain sample was taken. We also asked for details on how much of the city’s water mixture was being supplied from MW3 on that day.
Considering the long history of TCE-related chemicals in that well, and the fact that the levels of TCE related chemicals were at 90% of the legal limit the last time the city released results, we assumed the city had been testing water from the well whenever it was reactivated. Historical testing of MW3 indicates TCE levels increase when the well is active and decreased when it is not.
However, the city did not respond to our request for the TCE levels at the well on that day and they have now stopped responding to our information requests.
The city won’t confirm if it tested the well on the day of the water fountain test, or any other day since they turned it back on. Other than the school water fountain test, there is no public testing data related to that well since the city claimed to have shut it down in 2018.
TCE AND KIDS
The city stressed that “the water (in Ripon) meets all established drinking water standards” and stressed to CBS13 that the levels found at Weston Elementary were below the legal limit.
However, UC San Francisco Scientist Veena Singla says that there are no safe levels of TCE exposure for children. “Drinking water standards and guidelines that we have now are many decades old and don’t account for the latest science that shows pregnant women and children are more susceptible to TCE,” she explained in an interview with CBS News.
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which designated TCE as a chemical known to cause cancer, also confirmed to CBS13 that the current Public Health Goal and Maximum Levels allowed by law, don’t take the increased risk to children and pregnant women into account.
CBS13 reached out to the Ripon Unified School District several times over several days but the district did not respond until after this story aired on Sept. 20.
The district told CBS13 that it had not done any additional testing because “the City of Ripon tests the water regularly, and the reports that the city has shared with the community have continually indicated the water is compliant with the state established guidelines and standards.”
Notably, the city’s last published water tests are from 2018 and, as CBS13 has reported, the city’s water reports have a history or errors.
When asked why the school district didn’t share the water results along with the soil sample results at the April School Board meeting, the district said it “received the preliminary water sample report past the deadline to include on the same board meeting agenda. There was further clarification of the data that was needed prior to presenting and posting on the website. Also, the water samples data shows that the water meets the state standards and guidelines.”
CBS13 has confirmed that the district posted the raw test results on a subpage of its website over summer break, but did not provide context or an explanation online of what the test results were for.
In a follow-up phone conversation with CBS13, district representatives also claimed that they did share the water test results at a School Board meeting over the summer. Though parents that we spoke with say they had no knowledge of the meeting that, according to the district website, was held in the Ripon High School Library instead of City Hall Chambers where board meetings are usually held.
The meeting minutes also appeared to be missing from the district’s website until shortly after our phone call with district representatives on September 23rd.
Metadata for the district’s list of meeting minutes, and the meeting minutes themselves, indicates that the pages were updated at 4:27 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., respectively, on September 23, just minutes after our call.
CBS13 has asked the district to explain the apparent delayed upload. We are still awaiting a follow-up response.
“That is not how you report on news that parents need to know,” Monica said after hearing of the district’s response. “Note that the positive information was formatted in a memo and sent to the residents,” she added referring to the public water bulletin. “Why was this addressed differently?”
Editorial Note: This story first aired on 9/20/2019 and was updated following a response from the city of Ripon on 9/23/19.