Water at sex offender center violates health standards, state records show

J.D. McManus, who has lived at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island since 2001, sits next to a cooler of drinking water in a recreation yard and talks about how his shirts turn brown after being laundered at the facility.
J.D. McManus, who has lived at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island since 2001, sits next to a cooler of drinking water in a recreation yard and talks about how his shirts turn brown after being laundered at the facility. AP

Water at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island has repeatedly exceeded standards for various chlorine-related chemicals and been cited for violations dating back to 2006, according to an Associated Press review of state Department of Health records.

The reports say the facility’s water-treatment plant has been “on the verge of failure” since 2013, and a former plant operator told health officials in 2015 that the water’s cloudiness readings were being manipulated to make the water look cleaner than it was.

About 200 SCC residents have filed a federal lawsuit alleging the facility is violating their rights by forcing them to drink contaminated water that causes stomach pain and skin rashes and has been blamed for unexplained deaths.

The chlorine-related chemicals that exceeded state and federal standards were trihalomethane and heloacetic acid, which are “disinfection byproducts” that result from an interaction between chlorine and organic material.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says a person drinking water contaminated with these chemicals over many years could suffer liver or kidney problems or be at risk for cancer.

The residents allege in their lawsuit that there have been several unexplained deaths or cancer-related deaths since the SCC opened and a high cancer rate among the population. Their complaint does not cite specific examples.

The executive who oversees the SCC, home to the state’s worst sex offenders, says the water turns brown periodically when the pipes are flushed, and insists the cloudiness is only an aesthetic effect that causes no harm.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence that the water has caused a single case of illness out here,” CEO Bill Van Hook said, adding that the water-treatment plant “takes care of all of the health issues.”

J.D. McManus, who has lived at the SCC since 2001, disputes that. He said friends on McNeil Island have contracted diseases from the water and he has suffered ill effects such as developing hives after taking a shower.

“Just because we did a crime, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have clean water,” McManus said.

The SCC holds about 225 men and one woman who have been civilly committed and required to undergo treatment to make them safe enough to be released. Another 20 residents live next door in transitional housing.

The center’s drinking water, also used for laundry, cooking and brushing teeth, is pulled from the nearby Butterworth Reservoir before being sent to a treatment plant and a holding tank.

It then moves through corroded underground pipes to offices, housing units and a kitchen.

Health officials warned plant operators in 2014 that they were not correctly measuring and reporting data used to verify the removal of potential pathogens.

At issue was the way they measured turbidity, or cloudiness, in the water.

Turbidity can cause health problems if bacteria, viruses and parasites attach to particles in the water, risking nausea, cramps, diarrhea and headaches, according to the EPA.

In early 2015, one of the treatment plant operators told the Health Department that he had “no confidence” that drinking water standards were being met when it came to turbidity. Bill Platt said the system had been set up to create “a false reading for the record” and the actual levels were high.

Platt’s concerns bothered him so much that he resigned, he said in a letter describing the suspect system.

Health officials investigated Platt’s claims and told the plant operator in April 2015 that they questioned the “validity” of the plant monitoring and said the facility appeared to be “at the end of its useful life” and “vulnerable to treatment and equipment failures.”

Those findings forced the state Department of Corrections into an agreement with health officials in late 2015 to fix the problems or face penalties.

When some deadlines were not met, the agency asked for an extension to December 2017.

While giving a reporter a recent tour of the island, neither Van Hook nor Craig Mingay, an assistant attorney general who is handling the lawsuit filed by residents, said he knew anything about the agreement.

Last year, when a Corrections Department official gave health officials an update on the agreement last year, the official said the plant’s ability to maintain water quality was “in question.”

He also said the dam holding the water in the reservoir was at risk of failure.

The Corrections Department has asked the Legislature for money to replace pipes and drill test wells, but lawmakers have yet to approve any.

Calvin Malone, a resident leading the legal challenge, said the water contains high level of chemicals and fecal matter.

“None of the staff drinks the water here,” Malone said. “If the water was perfectly fine, why would they carry water from the mainland onto the site or use bottled water from the kitchen when the residents have to drink water from the pipes?”

Taunus Newton, a scheduling supervisor at the center, confirmed that he and other workers will not drink the water.

The original federal lawsuit was filed by SCC resident James Edward Jones in 2014. He contended the water had floating debris and caused severe stomach cramps, vomiting and other digestive problems.

The state responded by saying testing in accordance with state and federal regulations showed that the water was safe.

A federal judge dismissed Jones’ case, but an appeals court sent the case back. When Jones died in November, Malone took over the case.

Twenty-seven residents joined him in the complaint, and that list grew to 195 by May. They moved forward without a lawyer until the judge appointed one Sept. 8.