Wednesday, March 17, 2021

City Failed to Prevent Chemical Contamination

The City of San Angelo admitted it was lax in preventing toxic chemicals from entering the water supply.

The City of San Angelo will be hiring several Customer Service Inspectors in the near future and will be implementing a more rigorous cross contamination program citywide to greatly reduce the likelihood of an issue like this happening again.
Guest inspectors from McAllen, Lubbock, Brownwood and Abilene visited 85 industrial sites in the PaulAnn area. 

As a result, locations with inadequate protection will be required to upgrade or install additional backflow devices to help protect the City’s potable water supply.
City staff did not say how many of the 85 inspected sites need to make improvements.  Staff failed to mention the last time the city inspected any of the 85 industrial sites per Texas law.  That information should be shared with the public.

The city slowly trickles out information while using language of minimization, rare event, one time occurrence:

This is truly a needle-in-a-haystack kind of investigation because the chemical volume that caused the contamination could have been less than a gallon. We do believe this was a one-time occurrence rather than an ongoing issue. 

It isn't a one time occurrence if numerous industrial sites have production water migrating back into the city water supply.  Would you want water from a meat packing plant entering the public water stream?  How would you like to be the next customer down the water line?

This was a one time failure, just like a City of San Angelo water main break or street pothole.  All are part of Ricky Dickson's legacy.  He was the last Executive Director of Public Works (EDPW), the person responsible for backflow prevention according to city ordinances.  

TCEQ requires water providers to meet standards to obtain, treat, and deliver water. A public water system’s Cross-Connection Control Program is inspected during routine investigations made by TCEQ regional staff. Technical assistance in the area of cross-connection control is offered to public water systems by staff from TCEQ's central office.

Dickson served in that role from 2014 to 2020, so surely he got feedback from TCEQ on San Angelo's contamination prevention practices.  Prior to that he was Water Chief and oversaw Operations, which included Water Distribution as well as Street and Bridge.

EDPW Dickson hired Water Chief Allison Strube in 2018 but backflow connections remained his responsibility until his 2020 retirement.

TCEQ revised their advice for controlling cross connection contamination in August 2016.  Four and a half years later the City of San Angelo may catch up.  

It's not lack of funding that caused the PaulAnn water contamination.  The Water Enterprise fund balance grew from nearly $624,000 in 2016 to over nearly $19 million in 2019.  During that same period the Water Fund transferred over $10.5 million to other city accounts.

San Angelo lacked the ability to prevent toxic chemicals from entering our water supply and promises to make change.  It sounds a little like the Texas legislature on the power grid failure.  I look forward to reading the TCEQ investigative report as well as the city's internal investigative analysis.  Surely City Council will require one be conducted and shared with the public.

Update 4-2-21:  City Council will hear a "final update" on the toxic chemical contamination in their April 6th meeting.  This update indicates city staff remains unaware of the business that introduced dangerous chemicals into our public water system.

Rep. Drew Darby on Grid Failure


After watching portions of the two days of committee hearings on the power grid failure, I searched for Rep. Drew Darby's take on what he'd learned.  Darby believes bringing more minds to the table will help.

CBS DFW reported:

Republican state Rep. Drew Darby, who sits on the House Energy Resources Committee that is digging into the outages.  

His rural district includes two or three homes in the Texas oil patch that burned down as the power lurched off and on, and he heard of plants that couldn't burn piles of frozen coal outside. Even before the storm dropped six inches of snow as far south as San Antonio, generators in Texas were required to submit safeguard plans for cold weather. Darby suspects enforcement was scant.

“Typically, you know, the Texas Legislature pushes back on overregulation; Darby said. “However, my view on something as basic to human survival and need is we need to have reliable power and water.

Darby spoke with 6News after the public hearings:

"Certainly communication was one of the great failings of this incident," Darby said. "Communication and lack of regulatory oversight in spite of legislative direction."

It has become clear over the last few weeks that freezing weather had caused many outages at power plants across Texas. Neither ERCOT nor the PUC had power to enforce any such winterization regulations, but it was the lack of solutions and clear answers from agency leaders that had Darby and other lawmakers concerned. 

"I sensed a total, especially with the PUC, a detachment if you will," Darby said. "From the questions we were asking to the responses we were given, the vagueness and elusiveness of some of the responses, the lack of information and clear direction the agency had, was very troublesome."

The system did what it was designed to do by the Texas Legislature.  It failed millions while overcharging, even price gouging in a crisis.  Political appointees dodging responsibility in a crisis is an age ole tradition.

Darby said frozen infrastructure in the natural gas pumps, pipelines and plants was clearly an issue that needed to be addressed. ERCOT's Magness would not give personal recommendations on how such preparations could be regulated Thursday. 

Darby told 6 News the PUC would need to be given authority to enforce such measures, though he didn't know what the complete solution should look like. 

"I think clearly we've got to establish what those weatherization or winterization standards are and then we need to have the PUC implement those standards and make sure that generators follow those standards," Darby said. "Follow up with enforcement. Follow up with verification."

Another issue was the lack of reserve power available in Texas for when the grid is in danger of falling short. Darby said Texas has a reserve margin of only 13 percent. He did not know if that was actually required by the state or if it was another voluntary "best practice" that may or may not be followed by ERCOT. 

Darby shared a stage with Rep. Hugh Shine at a Temple town hall:

One factor in the lengthy power outages for thousands of Texans was failure of operators to winterize generating plants.

“We’ve made choices to prepare for the extraordinary hot summers we have here in Texas that we have every year, absolutely we prepare for that and they prepare for that,” Darby said.

But what he says they weren’t prepared for, was a winter storm as long and widespread as the historic freeze.

“We’re going to change that dynamic so there’s a lot of talk about what we can do and will do and what we have the appetite to do,” he said.

Darby says another problem was communication.

He says ERCOT had to have seen the issues with the power grid coming, but left Texans in the dark in terms of information.

“There was a failure, an utter failure, to communicate that this was not a rolling blackout situation as that term was used, your power was going to be off for a period of time.”

It was millions of Texans without power, not thousands.

The public awaits change and the opportunity to hold accountable those responsible for going days without power in life threatening conditions.  At least fifty seven Texas died during the winter storm, most from hypothermia.

Update 3-21-21:  Neither the Texas Legislature nor the Texas Supreme Court chose to deal with Grid Failure.  Markets win, citizens lose.

A move in Texas to wipe out more than $4 billion in electricity overcharges from last month’s devastating blackouts appears dead in the water after deeply divided lawmakers left town without taking final action on the proposal.

Immunity from accountability wins, citizens lose. 

The all-Republican high court split 5 to 4, with the majority deciding that a legal technicality prevented it from weighing in on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’s claim to governmental immunity in a case that predated the February disaster. As a result, a lower court ruling granting government immunity to Ercot stands for now.

Piss poor leaders gave Texans a system that not only failed millions but overcharged in a time of crisis.  That system remains firmly in place.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Council to Undertake Restricting Animal Services to City Limits


City Council will entertain restricting Animal Services to San Angelo city limits under the consent agenda on Tuesday, March 16th.  Staff believes there is no need to for the public to hear discussion on the item.  Yesterday, I wrote members of Council asking the item be moved to regular session.

The Animal Shelter Advisory Committee discussed this item in their January meeting.  Health Director Sandra Villareal asked about area rescues picking up the load should the city further restrict Animal Services.  The committee heard that area rescues do not allow the Animal Shelter to give out their information as they have been overwhelmed by the rise in demand from a series of shelter changes and the last year's pandemic.

Another proposed change restricting shelter access involves Community Cats.  The ASAC was to have taken that up in February but their meeting was postponed. That item will come to council in the near future.

City Council should balance Pets Alive's repeated cuts in services to area citizens with actual community need.  It would behoove Council to hear from area rescues on items before acting.

Shelter Chief Morgan Chegwidden's wording in the memo does not paint an accurate picture. 

Although some programs have marginally decreased intake, more work is necessary to achieve a 90% live release rate by 9/30/21.

FY20 intake was 4,560, 3.2 times best practices. Uncontrolled intake is unmanageable for staff and programming. We do not have sufficient resources to provide a live release for these animals.

The Animal Shelter achieved a 90% live release rate for the last several months.  Intake is down from nearly 8,000 in 2016 to nearly 6,000 in 2018 to roughly 4,500 in 2020. 

The city does not have uncontrolled intake.  It has managed intake for pet owners, which does not allow for an owner to surrender their pet to the shelter for illness or death.  It has managed intake for people who bring a stray pet to the shelter. 

Funding went from $750,000 in 2015 to nearly $1 million for the 2020 budget.  Staff rose from 12 in 2015 to 16 for 2020.  
 

It is also odd that a former budget director would not make savings projections from this move.  The memo shows financial impact as "Unknown".  Surely there would be savings from not having to provide care for sick animals. 

Best practices may apply in a community where owners spay/neuter their pets, keep them well fed and watered, up to date on vaccinations and out of the elements.  They may be a disservice in our community given what the city's adoption contractor said in November 2019:

PAWS Director Jenie Wilson said "San Angelo still has a population crisis coupled with a population of irresponsible pet owners which makes it a constant struggle for the shelter and PAWS to prevent euthanasia for space.”

Best practices involve working upstream on causes and reducing the need, like spay/neuter.  It is not a best practice to lop off services in pursuit of a metric.  Kitten season looms and the next cut is in the area of community cats, a top four Pets Alive strategy for the City of San Angelo.

The memo to Council states:

We ask that animals only be allowed into our programming if residing in San Angelo city limits only.

Tom Green County communities frequently receive dumped animals, many from city residents.  County residents contribute to the city's finances via sales taxes.  

An Assistant City Manager and PAWS Executive Director do not live in San Angelo city limits. If they were to bring in a stray pet from their homes in Wall would the shelter take them?  I would venture the Shelter would. 

If someone who works in San Angelo, but does not live in city limits, finds a stray pet while commuting inside city limits, can they bring that animal to the shelter?  The animal "resides in city limits".

Council should bring the item to regular session.  Mayor Gunter is known for asking good questions.  I hope she does just that.

Update 3-16-21:  City Councilman Harry Thomas pulled the item to the regular agenda.  Shelter Chief Morgan Chegwidden said communities in the county are already taking care of their stray animal issue.  If that were true there would be no animals from outside of San Angelo going to the shelter and no reason to further cut intake.  Morgan said 10% or 450 pets came to the shelter last year from Tom Green County, effectively countering her previous characterization.
 
Councilperson Billie DeWitt asked about health as a reason for a citizen to give up their pet.  Morgan said the sick person would make an appointment with PAWS, foster their pet for a period of time and if not successful PAWS would take the pet, not the city's Animal Shelter.  In a round about way Morgan confirmed the shelter does not take pets from San Angelo residents suffering from major illness.
 
Council did not seem the least bit concerned over the poor working relationship with area animal service organizations.  This should be a huge red flag.  Area rescues have written off the City Shelter and understandably so.
 
They approved further restricting Animal Services by a vote of 7-0.  Local rescues will once again bear the burden.

Update 4-13-21:  Cutting community cat intake is a topic at the April 15th meeting of the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Gilbert Consulting to Get Another $60,000 from City


San Angelo City Council will entertain hiring Former Municipal Judge Allen Gilbert for a third year of services.  The item is on the Consent Agenda (H) and will not be discussed for the public's benefit unless it is pulled into Regular Session by a councilperson.  Gilbert shifted from employee to contractor in early 2019.  

City staff are yet to provide information showing Judge Gilbert's contributions to Municipal Court, hours worked, cases closed, etc.  The contact will have been renewed twice without the public learning of the Judge's impact.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Pets Alive Continues Choking Animal Shelter Intake


The Animal Shelter Advisory Committee voted 6-0 to restrict services to San Angelo residents only in its January meeting.  The ASAC postponed its February 2021 meeting, but on the agenda is reducing the intake of Community Cats due to lack of funding.   

The memo states "this is the second intake diversion program" for 2021.  American Pets Alive has dramatically reduced services from the city Animal Shelter.  Major illness or death are not valid reasons for a pet owner to surrender a pet.

If American Pets Alive wanted our shelter to be more effective and efficient it would provide the city a veterinarian.  Concho Valley PAWS promised to recruit and employ a veterinarian in February 2018.  It fulfilled that contracted commitment for only a few short months.

PAWS veterinarian conducted spay/neuter surgeries for three months in 2018.  PAWS altered 87 pets, which is 29 spay/neuters per month on average.  They billed the city in May, June and July of 2018 for spay/neuter surgeries.

The Animal Shelter endorsed a Community Cat strategy in October 2019.  CritterShack Rescue is only local rescue officially participating in the Community Cat program established in 2015.  

The city petitioned the Attorney General to withhold information on other rescues participating in the Community Cat program, a request I made in November 2019.  The AG's office approved the city's request to not share information on the Community Cat program.  This stands in contrast to Pets Alive's position of complete shelter transparency.

The City donated its veterinary surgical equipment to Concho Valley PAWS in December 2019. PAWS still issues low cost spay-neuter vouchers for use at local veterinarians despite assuring City Council the equipment would be used.  CritterShack Rescue has long provided a low cost spay-neuter clinic for area citizens.  CritterShack offered to pay for the city's surplus surgical equipment.

City staff have avoided communicating and collaborating with organizations with a track record on Community Cats.  PAWS still has a community cat survey on its website with a promise to seek funding once the data is compiled.  

Shelter Community Cats can sit in the shelter for three months before being returned to their former home.  Pets Alive should know it is not a best practice to have shelter slots occupied by community cats waiting for a veterinary appointment.


Best practice is to trap the day/night before the surgery appointment and take them the next day to the veterinarian for surgery.  Males can be returned to the place they were trapped the day of surgery.  Females are recovered overnight and returned if they are recovering appropriately.  It should be three days, not three months.  

In October 2020 the city laid out how they plan to cut services based on the level of funding.

The City's inefficient model has community cats taking up shelter space due to a lack of veterinary appointments.   No wonder intake exceeds space and resources.

With no funding the city will not even vaccinate cats for rabies, a requirement of the State of Texas.  City ordinance states pets must be vaccinated for rabies before they can leave the shelter.  City and PAWS practice has been to book veterinary appointments for adopters where the pet will get vaccines along with spay/neuter surgery.  Those appointments are often months out and may or may not be kept.  

Data on shelter compliance with rabies vaccinations and spay/neuter surgeries has not been forthcoming from the city or adoption contractor PAWS.

PAWS Director Jenie Wilson told the ASAC in October 2019 she had compliance data on shelter pets meeting the spay/neuter ordinance but a December public information request had the city claiming no such document exists.  Standard contract language on the city's purchasing website addresses public information, ownership of documents and the city's right to ensure a contractor meets applicable regulations.  Apparently none of these terms apply to Concho Valley PAWS.

The shelter has choked off intake while hiding the most basic information on shelter services.  It's been a team effort for the city and PAWS.  Pets Alive has not challenged this dysfunctional arrangement in any material way. 

If the water department operated like the shelter it would cut off water to parts of town it could no longer afford to serve.  Street maintenance would turn streets back to gravel as it could no longer pay to keep them paved.  Citizens experienced something similar due to the PaulAnn toxic water contamination and streets badly deteriorated from the recent winter storm.  

Residents are now experiencing diminished services from the animal shelter.  Yes, it is part of a pattern.

Past intake diversion:

1.  Limited service area to Tom Green County only in FY15, decreased intake from 7,800 to 6,200

2.  Required counseling appointments for owner surrenders in FY19, decreased intake from 5,900 to 4,800.  

3.  Reduced reasons a pet owner could surrender their pet to the City Animal Shelter, removing owner illness and death as qualifying events.

FY20 intake was 4,560, 2.7 times best practices. Uncontrolled intake is unmanageable for staff and programming. We do not have sufficient resources to provide a live release for these animals.

Streets, water lines and pet services.  Citizens keep paying more for less. 

Update 3-12-21:  City Council's agenda for next Tuesday has restricting shelter intake to city residents only on the Consent Agenda. Council should discuss this item for two reasons.  One, animals without homes don't read signs showing city limits.

We ask that animals only be allowed into our programming if residing in San Angelo city limits only.

Two, people outside city limits shop in San Angelo.  They contribute to the city budget via sales tax funding.  PAWS Executive Director and an Assistant City Manager live outside city limits.  If either were to bring a lost pet from their home to the shelter I bet the city would take it.  

Today the city promoted a new facial recognition app reunites shelter pets with owners.

Animal Services has been busy launching a multitude of programs to better serve families and make our community No Kill. So, how can we manage one more task like Finding Rover? The beauty of this technology is that we don’t have to. 

Finding Rover works seamlessly in the background of our pet management software. No staff time is needed after an easy initial setup to review Finding Rover lost pet posts and cross reference newly arrived pets. Animal Services staff already uploads pictures of new arrivals on intake. Finding Rover simply accesses those photographs and notifies both Animal Services staff and the registered owner when there’s a match.

Should Council approve this item it will only try to reunite animals lost in San Angelo proper with owners who reside in city limits.   

Update 3-16-21:  City Councilman Harry Thomas pulled the item to the regular agenda.  Shelter Chief Morgan Chegwidden said communities in the county are already taking care of their stray animal issue.  If that were true there would be no animals from outside of San Angelo going to the shelter and no reason to further cut intake.  Morgan said 10% or 450 pets came to the shelter last year from Tom Green County, effectively countering her previous characterization.
 
Councilperson Billie DeWitt asked about health as a reason for a citizen to give up their pet.  Morgan said the sick person would make an appointment with PAWS, foster their pet for a period of time and if not successful PAWS would take the pet, not the city's Animal Shelter.  In a round about way Morgan confirmed the shelter does not take pets from San Angelo residents suffering from major illness.
 
Council did not seem the least bit concerned over the poor working relationship with area animal service organizations.  This should be a huge red flag.  Area rescues have written off the City Shelter and understandably so.
 
They approved further restricting Animal Services by a vote of 7-0.  Local rescues will once again bear the burden.

Update 4-13-21:  Cutting community cat intake is a topic at the April 15th meeting of the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee.

Monday, March 01, 2021

City Searching for Failed Backflow Preventers


The search for the source of toxic chemicals in San Angelo water continues.   City leaders believe the acetone, benzene and napthalene entered our drinking water supply through a failed or nonexistent backflow preventer.

San Angelo City Ordinances state:

Backflow Preventers. Backflow preventers shall be required by the Director of Public Works in [as] deemed necessary to protect the water system from possible contamination. 

Backflow prevention devices used in applications designated as health hazards must be tested upon installation and annually thereafter

Executive Director of Public Works Ricky Dickson is still listed in the City Directory, despite his absence from the official organizational chart.  

Dickson allowed San Angelo infrastructure (streets and water) to decline significantly during his decades of "we'll fix it when it breaks" management.   

I understand Dickson retired in January 2020.  Prior to that retirement Dickson was the man in charge of requiring backflow preventers.  His staff was in charge of annual testing of critical backflow devices. 

City Manager Daniel Valenzuela informed citizens the city is narrowing the list of possible culprits.  McAllen water staff found a number of businesses with failed backflow preventers. 

The city should share the inspection history of all industrial sites with failed backflow preventers.  When did the Director of Public Works require those industrial sites to have working backflow preventers.  How many were tested upon installation and annually afterwards?

Update 3-16-21:  Water Chief Allison Strube indicated the search for toxic chemical contaminants in the industrial part of town continues.  She said it could've taken a mere gallon of the dangerous chemicals to cause the widespread problems.  Strube gave no information on the number of industrial sites with backflow problems or the last time those sites were inspected.  

Update 3-17-21:  Inspectors from McAllen, Lubbock, Brownwood and Abilene visited San Angelo Industrial sites searching for the source of toxic chemical contamination.  Guest inspectors visited 85 facilities and businesses located in the northern industrial and PaulAnn areas. 

"As a result, locations with inadequate protection will be required to upgrade or install additional backflow devices to help protect the City’s potable water supply."  

The city has not indicated how many of the 85 sites need to upgrade or install backflow devices.  

The City of San Angelo will be hiring several CSIs in the near future and will be implementing a more rigorous cross contamination program citywide to greatly reduce the likelihood of an issue like this happening again.

This sounds like a Ricky Dickson thing.  After a TCEQ visit did Ricky say "we aren't going to do that."?