At Cypress Community Church outside of Salinas, guests have not been able to drink the water there for years. Only bottled water can be consumed and used.
“Arsenic has been confirmed there,” Monterey County Department of Health Director Cheryl Sandoval says. “There’s a lot of arsenic in that area and levels tend to fluctuate.”
In March 2016, tests taken from the church’s private well detected 16 parts per billion in its system, Sandoval says. That’s above state and federal drinking water standards for arsenic.
Arsenic, a naturally occurring contaminant that seeps into groundwater, can be commonly found in drinking water. In 2001, research found that three in 1,000 people could expect to develop bladder or lung cancer in their lifetime if the water they consume daily contains arsenic at more than 10 parts per billion. The risk increases as arsenic levels become higher.
That evidence prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 to crack down on its drinking-water standard for arsenic, slashing the limit from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.
“Thousands of wells were put out of compliance overnight,” says Russ Hatch of MCSI Water System Management. “Big systems can handle this no problem, but small systems have a problem.”
As it’s proving to be for Cypress Church. Jerry Gile, the church’s operations manager, says it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the technology to filter arsenic from its groundwater. It was the same story for the SPCA of Monterey County, also located along the Highway 68 corridor.
In 2013, the SPCA invested $300,000 to begin the filtering process, and now it pays $1,800 a month to run it – about $700 more a month than it used to be.
“It was a challenge. The county health department and the EPA were both not ready for this change,” Randy Farmer, maintenance manager at the SPCA says. “Nobody had answers for us in the beginning, we were the Guinea pigs.”
Gile’s budget is tighter than the SPCA’s $6.5 million budget. So for the years the church has been above the arsenic limit, labels above every faucet at the church have warned people to not drink or use the water. About 25 gallons are ordered weekly for people to drink or use.
Hundreds of people go to Sunday services and attend programs at Cypress through the week. In two years, the county will require the church to implement the filtration system, and Gile isn’t sure they can afford it.
“It’s a financial burden,” Gile says. “There’s a possibility we might have to take a stand.”