Sacramento County jail’s tainted drinking water forces removal of immigration detainees

Elevated lead, copper levels detected in multiple sites at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the March 9, 2017, issue.

Concerns about potentially tainted drinking water at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove prompted federal authorities to relocate more than 130 immigration detainees from the Sacramento County jail over the weekend.

County officials say a routine environmental inspection of the jail’s small water system uncovered elevated levels of lead and copper in some of the aging facility’s pipes. The unsafe levels of lead were detected at 16 out of 20 sites tested primarily between January 25 and February 1. Troubling levels of copper were found in six of the 20 sites.

The 335,000 square-foot complex is managed by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which also runs the main jail located downtown. RCCC also uses well water, which is not connected to other water systems and tested clean during the recent inspections, the county said.

State and federal environmental standards consider anything above 0.015 milligrams of lead per liter worthy of action. The standard is 1.3 milligrams per liter for copper.

On January 31, environmental testing found 0.92 milligrams of lead inside a portion of the women’s detention facility and 0.59 milligrams of of lead coming from the exam room sink of RCCC’s Christopher Boone Facility.

But the highest levels of lead—1.8 milligrams per liter—were discovered inside the bathroom of the Rodger Bauman Facility, where RCCC routinely houses federal immigration detainees awaiting deportation proceedings. Built in the 1960s, the standalone housing unit was called “antiquated” by the Sacramento County Grand Jury in 1999. Tests also found 10 milligrams per liter of copper in the water at RBF, more than seven times the standard.

But, according to sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull, detainees weren’t being housed in RBF when the water problems were discovered. They were being held in another housing unit that wasn’t among those cited for elevated levels of lead or copper in the water.

Still, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials transported 134 detainees to other ICE facilities on March 3 and 4 out of “an abundance of caution,” according to an email from ICE spokesman James Schwab. Most of the detainees were shuttled to a detention facility in Adelanto, east of Los Angeles, in a move billed as temporary as the county works to replace the affected pipes.

Since 2000, the sheriff’s department has rented out jail space to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, averaging about $6 million a year for its sublet.

The statement sent by Schwab said, “ICE values its longstanding partnership with the Sheriff’s Department and the stellar level of support the Department has consistently provided.”

Still, this wasn’t the first time ICE discovered shoddy housing conditions for detainees at RCCC. Inspectors cited a number of deficiencies during four visits in 2015, causing ICE to suspend its housing contract for approximately three months that year.

In announcing the elevated lead and copper levels in RCCC’s water, county officials made no mention of the impact to federal immigration detainees. A county spokeswoman said that was because ICE made the decision to remove them.

In a statement, Dr. Olivia Kasirye, the county’s public health officer, said her office was working with the environmental health and sheriff’s departments, as well as the state Water Resources Control Board, to “ensure the health and safety of inmates and staff.”

“Though some test sites exceeded the action levels, we consider this low risk,” Kasirye’s statement added.