Corpus Christie residents still without safe water after chemical leak
by Kevin Quinn, originally posted on December 16, 2016
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (KTRK) — The water crisis has not yet been resolved in Corpus Christi, and local business leaders have filed a class action lawsuit over lost profits.
Clean water has been restored for more than 2,600 families — about 15 percent of those affected — after a chemical was discovered in the water supply.
While city leaders have awaited test results still from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, they have released several portions of the city from water use restrictions. Click here to see a map of the areas given the all-clear.
“Right now, we’ve got about 15% of the city has water that’s flowing. We’ve got a big issue out there,” said Corpus Christi Mayor Dan McQueen, who was just sworn into his position four days ago.
There’s still no hard time frame on when all the water will be declared safe. McQueen said it would be at least 24 hours, because they found it necessary to flush three water tanks and it would take at least that long to finish that job.
The city has opened up water distribution centers where people can come get water. Thousands of bottles have already been given out.
As day two of this water emergency began, folks did what they could to stock up on the water that is so often taken for granted.
“We’re just out here looking for water,” said Corpus Christi resident Grace Linan.
A class action lawsuit has already been filed on behalf of restaurants and other businesses forced to shut down because of the water crisis. The defendants named Valero, its subsidiaries and Ergon Asphalt. Officials say Ergon operated the facility where up to 24 gallons of an asphalt emulsifier spilled into the water supply through some kind of backflow issue.
“The claim is it is the result of negligence. Gross negligence,” said plaintiff attorney Bob Hilliard. He said his offices have already been contacted by impacted business, only some of which have able to reopen — and only in a limited capacity.
Nearly 300,000 residents were asked to stop using tap water on Wednesday, sending many to the stores to buy bottled water.
Late Thursday, city officials announced that three locations were declared safe. Those areas include: Calallen, Flour Bluff and Padre Island. The rest of the city remains under a ban not to use the city’s water.
There is a question as to whether the spill happened because of a faulty back-flow preventer or if one was in use.
“That’s the question we all would like asked,” said Kim Womack with the city of Corpus Christi. “When we went onsite yesterday, there was not one.”
During a short news briefing, angry residents scolded city leaders for not fully explaining how the water supply might have been contaminated.
After Womack briefly spoke and talked about an anonymous donor providing the city 27,000 cases of bottled water, a group of residents began chanting, “What do we want? Clean water! When do we want it? Now!”
City officials warned in a statement that “boiling, freezing, filtering, adding chlorine or other disinfectants, or letting the water stand will not make the water safe.” They didn’t indicate when they might lift the order not to use the water.
City councilman Michael Hunter told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times early Thursday that it was unlikely that the leaked chemicals were concentrated enough to do harm, but that officials must take every precaution.
The discovery of the leak led to the closure of schools, disrupted businesses and led to long lines at grocery stores, as residents stocked up on bottled water. At least two large retailers, H-E-B and Walmart, sent for more bottled water to be shipped in.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Thursday it is working with officials in Corpus Christi. TCEQ said it has initiated “multiple measures,” including sampling “to determine the extent of potential impact.” TCEQ said agencies it’s coordinating with include the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott said his office is coordinating with the TCEQ, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Department of State Health Services on the issue. The Texas Division of Emergency Management is coordinating shipments of drinking water to the city.
It is just the latest in a string of water scares for this Gulf Coast city of 320,000 people.
In May, Corpus Christi officials issued their third boil-water advisory in a year. That notice lasted two weeks and officials at the time said it was largely a precautionary measure taken after nitrogen-rich runoff from rain flowed into the water system, resulting in low chlorine disinfectant levels in the water supply.
Boil-water notices were issued last year because of elevated levels of E. coli and another for low chlorine levels, the Caller-Times previously reported. The notices mirrored two others that were issued in 2007.
City crews have worked to reconfigure some water mains to ensure that water keeps circulating and to prevent bacteria growth. But an overarching concern is an old water system where more than half of 225 miles of cast-iron pipe needs to be upgraded. Many of the pipes were installed in the 1950s and when they decay they’re prone to collapse or to slow water flow, allowing bacteria to fester.
Civic leaders have expressed concern that recurring water advisories and warnings could cause long-term harm to the area’s vibrant tourism business.
The Office of the Governor released the following statement:
“The Governor’s office is aggressively monitoring the situation in Corpus Christi and is coordinating with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Department of State Health Services. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has been directed to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure this matter is handled as swiftly as possible, while maintaining the highest standards of safety. The Governor has directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to coordinate shipments of drinking water to Corpus Christi to ensure the residents have access to a safe and clean water supply. Governor Abbott’s top priority is a transparent response and the safety of Corpus Christi residents, and our office will continue to provide any and all support to remedy this situation as quickly as possible.”