Chem­i­cal leak re­ported week be­fore the pub­lic was warned

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

A chem­i­cal leak from an as­phalt plant that led Cor­pus Christi of­fi­cials to warn res­i­dents this week not to drink the wa­ter was ap­par­ently re­ported a week ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to an email from a state en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cial that was ob­tained Fri­day. The in­ter­nal email sent Wed­nes­day by Su­san Clewis, a re­gional di­rec­tor for the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity, con­tained an in­ci­dent re­port that de­scribed the leak as a “back­flow in­ci­dent from a chem­i­cal tank im­pact­ing the pub­lic wa­ter sys­tem.”

It was re­ported Dec 7 at a plant run by Er­gon As­phalt and Emul­sions. The email doesn’t say who ini­tially re­ported the leak on Dec. 7 or to whom. It says the state en­vi­ron­men­tal agency was no­ti­fied around 3 pm on Wed­nes­day. City of­fi­cials no­ti­fied the pub­lic that evening.

“Ob­vi­ously we are con­cerned about that ini­tial re­port that this may have been known for seven days and it may have been go­ing on for that long. And why did it take so long for TCEQ to get no­ti­fied?” asked Luis Moreno, chief of staff for state Sen. Juan Hi­no­josa, whose district in­cludes Cor­pus Christi. “Those are all things that I think are start­ing to be fig­ured out right now.”

Haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als

Dan McQueen, the mayor of the Gulf Coast city of about 300,000 peo­ple, has said lo­cal of­fi­cials also only learned of the leak on Wed­nes­day. Nei­ther Clewis nor city of­fi­cials re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment on Fri­day, when many schools re­mained closed for a sec­ond day. The TCEQ re­port 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 and could cause dam­age to in­ter­nal or­gans. “You don’t ex­pect to see it in wa­ter,” said Terry Claw­son, a spokesman with the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity.

Up to 24 gal­lons of it may have seeped into a pipeline car­ry­ing wa­ter, al­low­ing it to move to other ar­eas of the city, Kim Wo­mack, a spokes­woman for the city, said Thurs­day. Er­gon has said in a state­ment that 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.” Bill Miller, a com­pany spokesman, de­clined to ex­plain Fri­day how a haz­ardous chem­i­cal may have en­tered the wa­ter sup­ply.

State and city of­fi­cials have re­ferred to a “back­flow prob­lem” at the plant, and Wo­mack said in­spec­tors didn’t find a de­vice in place that pre­vents con­tam­i­nated wa­ter from flow­ing back­ward into a potable wa­ter sup­ply. Er­gon, though, has ar­gued that the plant does have a pre­ven­tion de­vice, Wo­mack said.

Miller said Er­gon Inc is leas­ing the prop­erty for man­u­fac­tur­ing pur­poses. The pri­vately held Flowood, Mis­sis­sippi-based con­glom­er­ate’s Cor­pus Christi sub­sidiary makes paving and pave­ment preser­va­tion prod­ucts. The 62-yearold com­pany also has re­fin­ing, truck­ing and real es­tate busi­nesses.

State and fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal records list no prob­lems at the plant over the past five years. Na­tion­wide, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency re­ports no cur­rent “sig­nif­i­cant vi­o­la­tions” at Er­gon fa­cil­i­ties but shows seven re­ceiv­ing fines since 2010, the high­est $17,200 paid by a Vicks­burg, Mis­sis­sippi, re­fin­ery. A Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity record lists an emer­gency re­sponse at the site on March 24 as hav­ing been closed. Claw­son, the agency spokesman, said he had no de­tails.

Avoid bathing

Mean­while, city of­fi­cials on Fri­day con­tin­ued to ease re­stric­tions on the use of tap wa­ter while work­ers flushed wa­ter pipes to make sure any rem­nants of the chem­i­cal are re­moved. Lim­ited use of wa­ter is al­lowed in some neigh­bor­hoods. Wa­ter can be used for show­er­ing and wash­ing clothes, but not yet for drink­ing. They warn that young chil­dren and those with weak­ened im­mune sys­tems should avoid bathing so as not to ac­ci­den­tally swal­low the wa­ter.

Of­fi­cials said Thurs­day that res­i­dents in some parts of the city can con­sume wa­ter how­ever they wish, but there were still sec­tions Fri­day where au­thor­i­ties urged no use at all. In ad­di­tional to shut­ter­ing schools, the leak also con­tin­ued to dis­rupt com­merce. Of­fi­cials said plenty of bot­tled wa­ter has been do­nated to help res­i­dents. City of­fi­cials have said that no one has turned up at area hos­pi­tals with symp­toms that might indi­cate they were sick­ened or burned by the chem­i­cal. A city coun­cil­man, Michael Hunter, told the Cor­pus Christi Caller-Times that it was un­likely the leaked chem­i­cal was con­cen­trated enough to do harm, but that ev­ery pre­cau­tion must be taken.

The in­ci­dent is the lat­est in a string of wa­ter scares for Cor­pus Christi. 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. 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. Ba­jak re­ported from Hous­ton.

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