Families in Jemez NM fight for safer water

Nov. 14, 2000
Hidden Valley Estates at the turn of the year 2000 wasn't on the map for state drinking-water regulators. They didn't know the tiny Jemez Mountain neighborhood near Fenton Lake State Park had a water system, much less that it was a health threat.

By IAN HOFFMAN

SANTA FE, NM, Nov. 12, 2000 (Albuquerque Journal)— Hidden Valley Estates at the turn of the year 2000 wasn't on the map for state drinking-water regulators. They didn't know the tiny Jemez Mountain neighborhood near Fenton Lake State Park had a water system, much less that it was a health threat.

Hidden Valley's drinking-water system never had a certified operator, had never been tested and had never been disinfected. What Hidden Valley had was contaminated water and families who suspected it was making them sick.

All this became clear when a pipe broke in January and residents examined their waterworks to find rodent droppings and old septic tanks close to their water source.

"This was nobody's idea of a sanitary water system," says state Environment Secretary Peter Maggiore.

Nancy and Chris Blecha left Albuquerque in 1996 for La Cueva's mountain surroundings with their three children to get away from gangs.

"We moved to paradise to raise children," Nancy Blecha said. Now, "We are drinking from a toilet."

Just over a month ago, Blecha suffered an attack of chest pains that took her breath away and shot down her left shoulder, leaving her fingers and her left leg numb.

Four neighbors, in their 40s or early 50s, in four different houses also report heart problems in the past two years. Several suspect the water in Hidden Valley Estates is to blame. The system serves more than 30 people.

Two local nurse practitioners separately urged state agencies to investigate what appeared to be a cluster of ailments among residents on the water system.

And that doesn't count the times bleach was run through the system as a disinfectant, causing children to get skin burns from bath water, residents say.

In the end, it took 10 months of trying to get help from the state and a personal appeal by the Blechas to Gov. Gary Johnson to get safe water in Hidden Valley Estates.

Since Oct. 6, on Johnson's orders, a National Guard water tank on wheels has served up water to Hidden Valley. A well-drilling crew has started on what residents hope is a safe water supply, funded by a state loan. The state Environment Department is testing the new well, and the new system is expected to be operational by mid-December.

Hidden Valley's water supply is on the upswing.

But why did it take so long? And could more Hidden Valleys exist in New Mexico?

"I can almost guarantee it," said Maggiore. "We live in a poor state."

For him, the case also has raised troubling allegations that low-level managers in his Environment Department were being high-handed with the public and hiding problems from him.

Maggiore was blindsided just Wednesday, for example, by fresh news that potentially disease-causing protozoans and roundworms had been detected twice in Hidden Valley's water — months ago.

"I would have hoped to learn earlier," he said. "And I would like to know why."

Tests of Hidden Valley's water also have shown bacteria, parasites and metals and strongly suggested the presence of other contaminants, such as viruses.

Hearing it from the boss
Maggiore first learned of the La Cueva problems not from his staff, but from the governor.

Johnson beckoned Maggiore into his office after Blecha complained to the governor for almost a half hour during one of Johnson's "Open Door After Four" days, when citizens can visit with the state's chief executive at the Capitol.

Some in Hidden Valley Estates believe Blecha has exaggerated the water system's health threats. Jos

Overblown or not, water woes in Hidden Valley point up failure in New Mexico's regulation of small drinking-water systems.

No one — no state or county regulator — was watching over Hidden Valley's water.

Houses and septic tanks cropped up around the system's spring-fed clear well, which sat uncovered in a shed.

An outhouse is just 54 feet away. Three houses still flush human waste into septic leachfields that sit within 200 feet of the system's water source, and the underground pipes send liquid waste downhill toward the springhouse, perhaps as close as 40 feet, according to Matthew Holmes, executive director of the New Mexico Rural Water Association.

"That's where the leachfields are flowing directly to that spring," Holmes says. "Hidden Valley is sucking up sewage into its drinking water on a regular basis."

Holmes' group is a nonprofit organization funded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environment Department. He got involved at Hidden Valley after operators of neighboring water systems alerted him.

State drinking-water managers first resisted and later derided the efforts of the Blechas to make sure the water was safe, according to Holmes and residents.

"Nancy Blecha is one of the people they (state water regulators) work for who stood up and said, 'Dammit, you work for me,' " Holmes said. "What's she's doing is completely appropriate. What's she's doing is really what EPA supports, taking ownership of her community system."

State drinking-water managers hadn't been able to identify contaminant threats to the water. And they didn't tackle those threats until Blecha took her case to the governor and Maggiore, Maggiore admits.

"There's a question of technical competency. There's a question of whether we're treating people like customers," Maggiore said.

The state's drinking-water program, Maggiore said, "has the potential to affect a lot of folks on a bottom-line, quality-of-health perspective. To the extent we made mistakes, you're not going to find me making excuses."

Johnson and Maggiore have backed the neighborhood's application for a zero-interest state loan of $36,000 to drill a well and install a 12,000-gallon tank for a new water supply. Whether that will solve the problems is unclear, in part because groundwater in the Jemez can be high in minerals.

Seeking answers
Nurse practitioners who work at a clinic in Jemez Springs began pressing for an investigation of the water system in March, then again in late June.

"I am contacting you concerning the health problems potentially caused by an ineffective and possibly dangerous water system in the Hidden Valley Estates," family nurse practitioner Stacey Jonas-Keeling wrote to Maggiore.

Maggiore says his staff never gave him the letter, and he doesn't know why.

"Residents of this housing development note they have been continuously exposed to water conditions ranging from excessive levels of microorganisms to overabundant levels of corrective chemicals," Jonas-Keeling wrote.

"It is my belief that the gastrointestinal, pancreatic, dermatological and varied other health concerns may be directly linked to the repeated exposure to this less than optimal water source."

Nationally, the number of outbreaks of waterborne illness reported in a year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention varies, but can be in the dozens.

The leading causes are thought to be among the 70-plus viruses that thrive in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and humans. A survey by one leading water-research group indicates more than a fifth of all groundwater contains those viruses.

In March, nurse practitioner Ray Munholland of Hidden Valley Estates began seeing a pattern of medical problems among residents of Hidden Valley Estates. He wrote to the state on March 9.

"Because of this cluster of illnesses and the vagaries of isolating cryptosporidium (a parasite responsible for a few, but very large outbreaks of illness in the United States) or other pathogens," the state Health Department needs to test the water, Munholland urged.

But the Health Department has never performed contaminant testing or health studies at Hidden Valley.

The state's Office of Epidemiology, a division of the Health Department, reasons that trying to link contaminants to illness is likely to be inconclusive because potential sources of infection are often too numerous.

Instead, the department backs installation of a new water source and regular testing for contaminants, as federal law requires.

"Whether a study would show a direct link or not wouldn't change our recommendation," said Ron Voorhees, deputy state epidemiologist.

"The bottom line here from a health standpoint is that there needs to be a safe water system."

Wanting more answers
Jonas-Keeling, the nurse practitioner, thought someone should do more.

Patients from Hidden Valley were complaining of significant gastrointestinal illness — diarrhea, stomach aches, gas and bloating. Jonas-Keeling took medical histories from them and other Hidden Valley residents. On her own time, she educated herself on waterborne microorganisms and illness.

"The solution isn't just to put in new water. The people there need to know what they have consumed and if what they consumed caused them to become ill," Jonas-Keeling said.

"Why," she asks, "didn't the state tell them what was in the water? Why didn't they tell them earlier to stop drinking the water? And why couldn't they fix the water supply sooner?

The answers lie with the New Mexico Environment Department.

Its drinking-water bureau did start testing for contaminants in February, but the agency refused to treat Hidden Valley as a state-regulated water system for several weeks after the water problems were first reported.

"It was not considered a public water supply," said Angela Faye Cross, a supervisor in the agency.

Hidden Valley's homeowners found out about their water system's problems on Jan. 26 while investigating a broken pipe.

The system begins in a rock cliff. A tiny spring trickles into an old concrete-and-metal springbox. Plastic pipe carries the water downhill to the shed. Inside, the pipe runs into a piece of corrugated metal culvert sunk vertically into the ground. The bottom is open to admit a second spring burbling up from below. In January, the top of this homemade cistern was exposed to any animals and contaminants inside the shed.

"When we first opened this up," said Chris Blecha, "there was fiberglass insulation hanging down the walls and mouse and rat feces hanging off of that."

Acting quickly
The operators of two neighboring water systems examined Hidden Valley's and quickly notified the Environment Department and the Rural Water Association that a public water supply was in trouble.

"That's very rare," said Rural Water's Holmes. "At that point, I knew something was wrong."

Later, Carol and Gene Linzey of Hidden Valley had a look, too.

"There were a couple of Environment Department people there and they were really surprised," Carol Linzey said. "At that point, we quit drinking our water."

Dan Murray moved his wife and daughter to Hidden Valley from Spokane, Wash., to take a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"I thought water was tested monthly," he said. "You almost assume that things are run pretty much the same wherever you go. When I walked into that place and we were drinking out of it, I thought, 'Wow, that's not a good sign.' It was a mess."

Yet it took weeks of prodding by the Blechas and a state environmental field inspector, Joe Herrera, to persuade the department's drinking-water managers that Hidden Valley really met the definition of a public system.

"It's been a battle where it shouldn't be a battle," Murray said.

Jonas-Keeling found the experience an eye opener.

"Nancy should have been able to go to all of the agencies and say, 'I think I have a problem.' And they should have come out, tested their water and tested them, too," Jonas-Keeling said. "They didn't.

"Now the people at Hidden Valley are out money, time and peace of mind, and they still don't know if the water made them sick."

Herrera finally resorted to hosting a neighborhood potluck so he could get an accurate head count of people who used the water.

Herrera wanted to prove how many people were served by the system because the federal Safe Drinking Water Act applies its potable water standards only to water systems with at least 15 hookups or 25 people served at least two months of the year.

"The Environment Department does not regulate water systems that do not serve the public, and the public is defined as 25 people, 60 days a year," said the drinking-water bureau's Cross.

The Hidden Valley system serves more than 30 people and has for at least nine years.

'A regulated entity'
Jose and Carol Montoya of Los Lunas acquired the system when they bought a summer cabin at Hidden Valley in the 1960s. It was a package deal; the property included the cistern and spring, as well as a septic tank and leachfield above the spring.

"We didn't even know that we had become a regulated entity," Jose Montoya says. "We didn't know that we were supposed to be testing."

In the spring, Cross of the state's drinking water performed the first official study, a process known as a sanitary survey. It is supposed to point up areas of noncompliance and potential sources of contamination. Cross' diagram of pollution sources shows no outhouse and shows the nearest septic tank at 400 feet, although houses, septics tanks and an outhouse are much closer.

She told supervisors the error occurred because of a mixup in measurments. The effect of her error minimized the apparent risk of fecal contamination.

"The community told her about the septic problems and she choose not to listen to that," Holmes said. Cross' supervisor wouldn't allow her to be interviewed on this point.

State officials later came to rely more heavily on another survey performed by the Rural Water Association.

"The (original) sanitary survey was done hastily, and as a result it's technically very poor," said Holmes. "It's really not worth the paper it's written on."

If liquid wastes are seeping into the spring, as Holmes and some state regulators believe, then the Montoyas could be drinking their own waste, along with their neighbors'. Jos

"Matter of fact, that's the only water I do drink," he said.

The Montoyas initially charged each household $5 a month. The rate later climbed to $15, then six years ago to $22.

In February, the first state tests of Hidden Valley's water found coliform bacteria in the cistern, the central collection point for the system, and at one house's tap.

Disinfecting process
Cross told the Montoyas they had to start disinfecting the system. They did, using jugs of household bleach, a common disinfectant for New Mexico's poor rural water systems.

Typically, a certified system operator will add bleach, have users run faucets to course the chlorine through their pipes, then let the chlorinated water sit a while to disinfect the entire distribution system. The users then run their water until the bleach is gone.

In Hidden Valley, families inadvertently bathed their children in water so chlorinated it burned, and water glasses gave off fumes.

"All the hair dye on all the old ladies was gone," said Nancy Blecha.

Her youngest, 2-year-old Jewel, sat tugging at her white Easter dress until Blecha found the burns underneath. "Her back was blistered," Blecha said.

Jewel already was one of two Hidden Valley residents showing evidence of elevated lead, according to blood tests given routinely to children on Medicaid. Jewel Blecha, then just a year old, had almost as much lead in her blood as one might expect in an adult.

She sustained bleach burns again in May, her mother said. Her brother Travis, 8, was burned in June.

Nancy Blecha and Dan Murray still flush in anger at the memory. Murray's 4-year-old now doesn't take baths.

"It created some burns around her mouth and back and under her arms and genital area. She still has bumps around her face leftover," he said. "Now she's taking quick showers. We just get her in and get her out, enough to get her clean."

In mid-June, the Rural Water Association stepped in and installed a chlorination device to mete out the bleach at lower, more consistent levels. Before they did, state tests turned up E. coli bacteria at two Hidden Valley houses.

Detections of coliform bacteria in general don't mean much except in a strict regulatory sense: If a second test is positive, it's a violation that can prompt a notice to homeowners to boil water for safe use. Finding E. coli is far more serious. It strongly indicates human or animal waste has recently invaded the water system, bringing a wealth of viruses and bacteria along.

"If you find E. coli in your waters, you have a high probability of having all the pathogens known to mankind in that water, both bacterial and viral," said Martin Allen, a microbiologist on staff at the American Water Works Association Research Foundation in Denver.

Microorganisms in human waste can do much worse than cause gastrointestinal illness. They can trigger heart disease. Viruses alone probably account for a third of cases of myocarditis, an inflammation of heart tissue, said Umesh Parashar, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Heart infections have been "clearly documented" in places served by contaminated water, Parashar said, "but there is no definite proof that such a transmission has occurred."

Dan Murray suspects Hidden Valley's water is harming the health of his family. At his desk in July, Murray had an attack almost identical to Blecha's — pressure on his chest, trouble breathing, pain running down his shoulder to his hand.

A doctor later gave him a clean bill of health.

"I'm pretty convinced that the water system has a lot to do with things, because we were pretty healthy people coming down here," he said. Murray and his wife are thinking of moving out.

"My daughter was pretty healthy before this," he said. "My major concern is, in the long run, what's this doing to her and to us?"

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