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Dec 18, 2016 12:33 AM

Official: Texas city had 3 reports of dirty water before ban

The Associated Press

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — 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 hasn't 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 people 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's no indication the chemical leak contaminated the Gulf Coast city's water supply.

Officials are hoping the answer will come Sunday with the release of the 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 said 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 administration building at the asphalt plant that oil refiner Valero leased to Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions. City workers flushed the pipe. A second report came from the 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 they 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 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. 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?" Carol Gonzalez asked. "We just don't know."

Her family lives less than a mile away and her husband, Anthony Gonzalez, had made spaghetti for their 9- and 10-year-old daughters the night the water use ban was announced.

The couple, interviewed while picking up a free case of bottled water at a city-run senior center, 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 Gonzalez said.

A TCEQ report obtained Friday indicates 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 on Saturday acknowledged the "soap solution" had backflowed into a pipe through which it receives water. It said that pipe isn't directly connected to the city water main but rather is interconnected. It didn't offer additional details but said it has cooperated fully with the city, TCEQ and EPA and would continue to do so.

Ergon spokesman Bill Miller said earlier the company was pushing the TCEQ for answers on whether there was actually contamination.

Valero suggested Ergon was sluggish to acknowledge responsibility for the leak. It said its employees alerted Ergon three times after they encountered the dirty and contaminated water, on Dec. 2, 8 and 12, to ask if it could be related to Ergon operations.

Hill, the Ergon spokesman, had no immediate response to Valero's statement.

More than a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed against 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 couldn't find backflow valves 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 batch of the asphalt emulsifier; 10 gallons of hydrochloric acid is used per batch.

It's the latest in a string of water scares for the 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.

According to a TCEQ report, the asphalt plant reported a spill of about 350 gallons of asphalt emulsion into the soil on March 25. The company cleaned up the spill, which it classified as nonhazardous waste, and disposed of it at a nearby landfill. The state agency did not issue a violation.

A city manager said 23,000 cases of bottled water have been distributed, much of it donated, to help residents. The mayor said no one has turned up at a hospital with symptoms that might indicate he or she was sickened or burned by the chemical.

___

Associated Press writer Emily Schmall in Fort Worth and Paul J. Weber in Austin contributed to this report.

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