McNeil Island inmates say their water is unclean, causes illness

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MCNEIL ISLAND — Scores of sex offenders ordered to live on a secluded island in Washington state say the often-cloudy, brown water there is making them sick, and records show the water system has been plagued by problems for more than a decade.

About 200 residents of the Special Commitment Center have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that 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 executive who oversees the center says the water turns brown periodically when the pipes are flushed, and he insists the cloudiness is only an aesthetic effect that causes no harm. But an Associated Press review of state Department of Health records shows that the water has repeatedly exceeded standards for various chlorine-related chemicals and has been cited for violations dating back to 2006.

Health 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.

J.D. McManus, who has lived at the center southwest of Seattle since 2001, said his friends on McNeil Island in south Puget Sound 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.

Corroded pipes

The Special Commitment Center is home to the state’s worst sex offenders — those who have been deemed “sexually violent predators.” At the end of their prison sentences, the state convinced a judge that these inmates were too dangerous to be released, resulting in a civil commitment that requires them to undergo treatment that could someday make them safe enough to be released. Some have lived there for many years.

The center consists of a half-dozen buildings encircling a grassy recreational area and surrounded by multiple rows of razor-wire fencing. It holds about 225 men and one woman. Another 20 residents live next door in transitional housing.

The 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 back 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 Environmental Protection Agency.

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.

Monitoring questioned

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 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 the center’s chief executive nor Craig Mingay, an assistant attorney general who is handling the lawsuits filed by residents, said he knew anything about the agreement.

“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.”

But when a corrections official gave health officials an update on the agreement last year, the official acknowledged that the water treatment 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 Department of Corrections 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.