There were three reports of dirty water before the 300,000 residents of Corpus Christi were told not to drink the city’s water due to a chemical leak at an asphalt plant, city officials said Saturday, adding that the city has not found evidence of water contamination. Mayor Dan McQueen said he won’t know until Sunday whether a ban on drinking, cooking or bathing with tap water will be lifted for the 113,000 citizens still under the restriction. McQueen, who took office Tuesday after defeating an incumbent who came under fire for her handling of previous water crises, said there is no indication yet that the chemical leak at an asphalt plant contaminated the Gulf Coast city’s water supply.
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Officials are hoping the answer will come Sunday with the release of the first first results of 30 samples taken by the Environmental Protection Agency and being tested in Houston. McQueen said the city would seek to recoup its losses from the polluter. The EPA also said in a statement Saturday that there were four “unconfirmed reports” of symptoms possibly related to prohibited water use. McQueen called the reports “rumors.”
Assistant City Manager Mark Van Vleck said earlier that the first “dirty-water report” came Dec. 1 from the Valero-owned administration building at the asphalt plant that’s leased to Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions. City workers flushed the pipe. A second report came from the same building Dec. 7, he said, and the main was flushed again.
“We get dirty water reports all the time,” Van Vleck said of the first two, saying old cast-iron pipes are usually the reason.
But Monday, Valero workers told the public works department “something white and sudsy” was in water at the administration building. City workers determined there was a leak in a chemical tank at the asphalt plant and on Tuesday determined there was a backflow problem. The city told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about it Wednesday, Van Vleck said, and hours later, the state banned use of public drinking water.
TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said Saturday that the full city ban was justified. “We did not have enough info to lift any bans or modify any bans until we did so,” he said. Neither the city nor the state had information on the chemical composition of the spilled substance until Thursday afternoon. Van Vleck cautioned that the investigation is ongoing, “so we don’t know what happened.”
The ordeal was unnerving for Corpus Christi residents, especially those who live near the asphalt plant. “Have we been exposed?” said Carol Gonzalez, 37, “We just don’t know.” Her family lives less than a mile away and her husband, Anthony, had made spaghetti for their 9- and 10-year-old daughters the night the water use ban was announced.
Interviewed picking up a free case of bottled water at a city-run senior center, the couple had already spent $150 on water, not to mention eating out. And they’ve been driving out of the city to fill buckets of water they use to bathe their children, who include a 6-month-old girl.
“It’s gotten very expensive, and there’s not going to be any reimbursement,” Carol Gonzlez said. A TCEQ report obtained Friday indicates that a combination of Indulin AA-86 and hydrochloric acid leaked into the water supply. Indulin is an asphalt-emulsifying agent that’s corrosive and can burn the eyes, skin and respiratory tract if a person comes into contact with concentrated amounts. The amber liquid is considered a hazardous material by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Ergon has said it has been in contact with the TCEQ and was “working cooperatively to provide all information to ensure state officials can remedy the situation as quickly as possible.” On Saturday, company spokesman Bill Miller said the Ergon is pushing the TCEQ for answers on whether there was actually contamination.
“Inaction is bad for people in our position. The longer we sit here, the worse it looks,” he said. More than a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed against oil refiner Valero and the privately held Flowood, Mississippi-based Ergon subsidiary, which makes paving and pavement preservation products. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported that several businesses and a class-action lawsuit representing all of the city’s residents allege the companies recklessly exposed business owners and residents to toxic chemicals.
City public works employees could not find backflow valves either on the chemical tank of the water intake pipes connected to the city water main, Van Vleck said.
“They thought it was there but they could not show it to us,” he said. The city estimated that up to 24 gallons of Indulin leaked because Ergon officials told them that was the amount of the chemical used to mix a single batch of the asphalt emulsifier; 10 gallons of hydrocloric acid is used per batch.
It’s the latest in a string of water scares for the Gulf Coast city. In May, the city issued its third boil-water advisory in a year as a precaution after nitrogen-rich runoff from rain flowed into the water system, resulting in low chlorine disinfectant levels in the water supply.
State and federal environmental records list no problems at the plant over the past five years. A TCEQ record lists an emergency response March 24 as having been closed. Clawson said he had no details, and Van Vleck said he was unaware of any incident.
Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency reports no current “significant violations” at Ergon facilities but shows seven receiving fines since 2010, the highest $17,200 at a Vicksburg, Mississippi, refinery. City Manager Margy Rose said 23,000 cases of bottled water have been distributed, much of it donated, to help residents. And the mayor said no one has turned up at hospitals with symptoms that might indicate they were sickened or burned by the chemical.