by Panagioti Tsolkas
What was intended as a state-of-the-art, $32 million prison water treatment plant has turned into yet another state infrastructure boondoggle. Since the plant’s completion in 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Deuel Vocational Institution, which uses brackish wells on its grounds, is supposed to run the water through a two-step treatment process before it reaches 2,300 prisoners and 1,000 corrections employees.
According to a July 2018 news report, the prison’s water plant in the town of Tracy has spent much of its life offline, requiring bottled water to be provided at the Deuel facility. Since October 2017 alone, the prison spent around $417,000 on bottled water.
The problem is not a new one. Like other prisoners across the country, those held at Deuel had been complaining about the taste and color of the water, seemingly without recourse, until a state environmental agency finally stepped in.
Deuel opened in 1953 and has been expanded several times since then. It serves primarily as a reception center, though it also houses California Prison Industry Authority slave labor programs, including a furniture fabrication plant, a farm where cattle grain is grown and a 1,200-cow dairy operation that supplies milk to other prisons and tax-supported public agencies.
After years of water quality complaints, the concerns of thousands of Deuel prisoners were heard in 2004. Talk of a new water plant finally began gaining traction.
In 2010, CDCR spokesman Lt. Gilbert Valenzuela recalled that after the treatment plant began operating, a prisoner wrote officials a note saying, “Thanks for listening to us.... It’s about time.” Valenzuela clarified, however, that the plant was not a luxury item for the prisoners, despite what they might think.
The new treatment plant was driven by the fact that the CDCR began racking up fines for high levels of heavy metals found in the prison’s water supply, which were making their way into tributaries of the San Joaquin Delta. Repeated violations resulted in the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board fining the CDCR $525,000.
Within a year of its initial opening, the water treatment plant was shut down. Deuel’s plant manager, Jeffrey Palumbo, estimated that it would be up and running again within the next three months.
“We know what the problem is and how to address it,” water plant supervisor Matt Cordua said in 2010. But violations and hefty fines continued.
The Regional Water Quality Control Board again issued a series of citations against the CDCR as a result of ongoing water discharge issues at Deuel. The department paid a $2.3 million penalty in 2017, with $1.2 million going to the water board and $1.1 million to a nonprofit group carrying out water quality improvements in the San Joaquin Valley.
“What it comes down to is state requirement,” Palumbo said. “It has nothing to do with the inmates.”
Meanwhile, a key component of the high-tech plant, the brine concentrator, continues to malfunction, leaving the water below safe drinking standards.
The director of public employees for the union that represents maintenance workers at the prison, Steve Crouch, called the treatment plant a “debacle” that could have been resolved by simply keeping more parts on hand to make needed repairs.
The new California state budget includes $2 million for the CDCR to develop a new water treatment system; if all goes as planned, the department claims that system will be operational by 2021 – at a total cost of another $32 million.
Meanwhile, the CDCR is forced to continue spending approximately $46,000 a month on bottled water for both prisoners and staff.
Source: The Sacramento Bee
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