CALIFORNIA

'You don't drink the water in Gardena': A year later, residents remain skeptical

Last year, some Gardena residents started complaining about the quality of their tap water.

Brown or black water gushed out of some faucets, smelling like rotten eggs or sewage.

Residents demanded action from local officials, and famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich even got involved.

A year later, officials said that they've worked hard to improve the water quality and that the issues have been largely fixed.

But some residents say they’re not sure the problem is gone for good.

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"It's a known thing: You don't drink the water in Gardena. It's a little joke, but you know, it's serious," said Christine Washington, 35.

Last week, Assemblyman David Hadley (R-Torrance) told the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency that regulates private water companies, that he's still getting complaints about Gardena's water.

"The residents of Gardena have been complaining about their water for years," Hadley told Michael Picker. "Just in the last two weeks I've received 75 postcards on the subject of water. And yet nothing has happened and we have very few tools at our disposal, it seems."

Picker told Hadley he would look into the issue and work with the assemblyman's staff.

Golden State Water Co. officials said the problem began in late 2014 and worsened at the beginning of 2015. Company data show that 33 residents filed water-quality complaints in January of that year, then 46 in February. Around that time, videos of black water pouring out of faucets surfaced and began to get media attention.

In late April, Brockovich and Robert Bowcock, a former water utility manager, attended a town hall meeting to listen to residents express their concerns about the water.

Water officials said the problem had to do with sediment that had built up in some of Gardena's aging pipes. They flushed and cleaned the pipes and plan to replace 10 miles of pipeline in 2016, they said.

"We have not had reports of complaints or any issues for quite some time," said Denise Kruger, senior vice president of regulated utilities for Golden State Water Co. "The issue has been fixed."

Gardena Councilman Dan Medina said the problem with the city's water goes further back — to 2006. He said it began with reports of smelly water and got worse.

"Some people complain about skin problems and some complain about respiratory problems," he said.

Company officials said annual water quality reports dating back 10 years do not support Medina's statements. They have maintained that the water is safe and does not pose any health hazards.

The back and forth in Gardena recalls years of fighting in the southeast Los Angeles County city of Maywood, where residents for years complained about brown, smelly and foul-tasting water. Private water officials said the problem was caused by aging infrastructure, including pipes that needed to be replaced.

In 2013, the state passed a bill to provide funding to three private water companies to make improvements and require them to act more like public agencies, including by opening their finances to greater scrutiny as well as audits.

Regardless of how far the water issues go back in Gardena, many residents have a vivid memory of the problems from last year.

Coralia Contrera, 56, recalled that she was about to shower when black water came pouring out. A 20-year resident, she said she had never seen or smelled anything so awful.

"It looked moldy," she said. "Like when your drain is clogged."

Her next-door neighbor at 150th Street and Saint Andrews Place, Agirpino Panganniban, 74, said he remembers washing dishes when the black water flowed out of the faucet. He compared it to "black mildew."

Contrera and Panganniban said their water seems fine now.

But Christine Washington's mother, Connie Trimble, 59, said she still has reservations whenever she takes a shower or uses the sink. The smell of rotten eggs is gone. But she still finds sediment particles in her water, and she wonders whether the larger water problems of before are truly gone for good.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @latvives

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A city still wary about water - Officials say quality has improved, but Gardena residents aren't sure the issue is gone for good." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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