The women at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York have been complaining for at least a couple of years about the appearance, taste and what they believe are negative effects of water they drink, shower in and use for laundry at the prison.
They say they have had skin rashes, thinning hair, toenails fall out, and medical symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea. And they believe it's from the water.
They say the water is tannish, not clear.
And they describe the rashes as redness, bumps and something looking like chemical burns, said Assistant Ombudsman Anthony Kay, who's worked on the issue the past two years.
Problems began in the water tower that supplies the prison using groundwater, he said. The Department of Corrections renovated the 200,000-gallon tank, including adding a mixer to help with settlement and movement of the water.
When water levels tested high in copper, the department also installed a reverse-osmosis unit in the equipment supplying water to the nursery, the room used to tend to the babies born in the prison, Kay said.
But Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick said the ombudsman's office has continued to get complaints, and reports completed by the Department of Health and Human Services indicated ongoing concerns about copper levels found in the water.
The level of copper in drinking water should not exceed 1,300 micrograms per liter, or 1,300 parts per billion. Water sample reports from the DHHS published on the internet showed the York prison measured 2,340 micrograms per liter in 2017 tests, 1,490 micrograms in the first half of 2018, and 1,429 micrograms in samples since July.
A year ago, water sample reports found that the prison's nursery recorded almost twice the allowable limit for copper. The nursery is a part of the facility in which women who give birth while incarcerated live with their children for a set amount of time, Koebernick said. In August 2017, samples taken from a staff restroom measured 2,850 micrograms, and from a nursery restroom it was 2,150 micrograms.
Those reports on copper were posted in three areas of the prison, a department attorney told Kay.
Copper is a reddish metal that occurs naturally in rock, soil, water, sediment and air. It rarely occurs naturally in drinking water, and usually comes from somewhere in the delivery system, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Too much copper can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps.
DHHS recommended in a March letter to Department of Corrections Director Scott Frakes that the prison reduce exposure to copper, particularly for the nursery, and Kay suggested installing the reverse-osmosis unit in each of the living quarters at the prison, including the nursery and the medical unit, to reduce exposure to contaminants.
Kay said Frakes agreed to put the reverse-osmosis unit in the nursery, and it was installed earlier this year, but not in the living quarters. Frakes said in his letter that adverse health effects have not occurred and the water at the prison was safe for consumption or showering.
But Kay said the prison had received 67 complaints to the medical unit about rashes or other problems inmates believed were related to water quality. As of Aug. 18, there were 285 women housed at the prison.
The corrections department has until April to submit an action plan, a spokesman from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality said. The department has agreed to begin a study of where the excess copper is originating and contracted in May with an environmental testing and consulting firm.
State Ombudsman Marshall Lux said the water situation at the York prison continues to be a concern to his office.
The women have been told they can turn on the tap and let it run for 20 seconds and the contaminants will clear.
"I don't find that (answer) terribly satisfying," Lux said. "It's not an ideal situation."
If it were a small Nebraska town with the same issues, people in the town would expect the mayor to fix it, he said.
"And they'd be right," he said. "It's not getting the kind of priority treatment that I would have given it. ... It seems to me that we don't want our Department of Health and Human Services telling us that there's issues with the water and not aggressively dealing with it."