Spring winds still contained the bite of winter in the high San Luis Valley 2 years ago when people were getting sick and everybody had to line up to get clean water from National Guard troops.
The public water in the 7,500-foot Colorado mountain valley town of 8,900 was contaminated and 1,300 would become infected with Salmonella. Before it was all over, 55-year old Lee Velasquez would die.
In a strange series of events, the town of Alamosa found itself with its water contaminated with Salmonella just as it was about to bring a new $10.8 million water treatment plant on line to meet a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard on arsenic.
“Sally,” the name Alamosa officials gave to the 2008 loss of their water supply and the subsequent Salmonella outbreak, is a story that has had many twists and turns.
As the winds have blown since Sally–the nearby dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park are made by those winds— the state told the town it had allowed animal wastes to contaminate an underground water storage tank. And that is the most likely way Salmonella got into the public water.
The question that remained was whether any of the victims would be compensated for their illnesses, including medical and travel expenses, lost wages, and emotional stress from the ordeal of a Salmonella infection.
Colorado does not make it easy. Its “sovereign immunity” shields towns like Alamosa from paying any more than $600,000 for “any one occurrence” of injury and no more than $150,000 to any one plaintiff.
Travelers Insurance, representing the City of Alamosa, has agreed to pay a total of $360,000 to 29 Alamosa residents who sued the town over their 2008 Salmonella infections. The plaintiffs included 16 children who became ill during the outbreak.
Alamosa said it continues to dispute the charge made in the lawsuit that the city was negligent, but found the settlement process approved by District Judge Martin Gonzales as fair and equitable.
Marler Clark, the nationally known Seattle law firm for victims of water and foodborne illnesses, waived all its fees and costs for representing the Alamosa victims.
Marler Clark’s R. Drew Falkenstein said the law firm wanted to help the community, which has been going through rough economic times since the 2008 outbreak. Attorney John Riley, of the Colorado law firm of Montgomery, Little and Soran, assisted Marler Clark in the litigation.
The public water in Alamosa is now treated with the new system. Arsenic is practically gone, but chorine sometimes brings out the iron, occasionally turning the water a brownish color. The brownish tinge is supposed to be harmless and can be run off, but it’s also a reminder of those cold spring days when the water was also dangerous.