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.

Update 6-10-21:  TCEQ issued a Notice of Violations to the City of San Angelo on 6-4-21.  The letter cited four failures of TCEQ's cross connection control program standards (essentially the bullet points in this post).  Three of the four violations must be corrected by early August, while one involving updating city ordinances has an October due date. 

Update 8-4-21:  Water Chief Allison Strube told a reluctant City Council that customer service inspectors should have been hired years ago.  It's Ricky Dickson's legacy and staff continue covering for his incompetence.

Update 2-17-22:  The city published a video on their efforts to comply with TCEQ's Cross Connection Control program requirements.

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