“I’m dumbfounded,” said Mayor David Carabajal, who insisted the investigation involve all council members. “There’s more to this n Loss of water for an estimated 15,000 people.
• Economic losses, as yet untallied, to area motels and restaurants.
• Partial activation of the Emergency Operations Center for the first time.
• The city to issue a second boil order in as many months.
• Beeville schools to close — with a resultant loss from state attendance funds and purchase of bottled water.
• Concern that the fire department’s ability to fight a major fire was diminished.
• Christus Spohn Hospital to cancel surgeries and to transfer dialysis patients to out-of-town hospitals and treatment centers.
• A communications breakdown in which plant operators kept forecasting a return to water service in hours when it took days.
“It was a perfect storm,” Carabajal said.
That the plant was under the control of an experienced, but unlicensed, operator lends credence.
When asked if the operator of a water treatment plant was required to be licensed, Interim City Manager Marvin Townsend paused for almost 10 seconds before replying that “there’s no simple answer to that. Yes, it is a requirement, but what is the option, shut the plant down?”
The Texas Administrative Code, formulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — which grants and regulates water treatment plant licensing — states that “Any operator employed by a public water system operations company must hold a license.”
Beeville Water Supervisor Michael Lentz told the council that the operator “had let his license slip.”
“To be honest with you, we have a lot of turnover,” explained Beeville Utility Systems Director Cesario Vela. “It’s real hard to get people to stay here because of the pay.”
Vela and Lentz cited competition from Corpus Christi and the Eagle Ford Shale. “People who come here, we get them qualified and then they leave because they can make more money elsewhere. Obviously, we need to change that.”
Carabajal didn’t buy it. “The people we put in charge of that water plant? Why did they never bring their concerns before the council?”
And Councilman Trace Morrill was skeptical. “You know,” he said, “if that’s the case, I would like to see that in writing.”
Neither Carabajal nor Townsend could definitively say whether the violation of state law left the city vulnerable to litigation.
Nor could Morrill, who tried to keep the exchange at the council meeting from escalating.
“I’m not familiar with the licensing requirements,” he said, “but there are grave concerns about how the city got to a situation where we didn’t have water. It is something the city has needed to face for quite some time. It shows how dramatic the impact is on the community at large.”
Morrill’s view was longer term. “If something like this occurs again, I hope the investigation will result in policies and procedures in place to let everybody know to lessen the blow. The city did not adequately apprise citizens of the severity of the problem.”
That investigation is on hold, pending the completion of a timeline of events being compiled by Townsend.
“I started working in community government 22 years ago. This is the first time I have had to handle an entire city without water,” he said, “and I’ve only been here five weeks.”
On his wall is a nine-square-foot list of projects needing attention at the treatment plant. A number are colored red, signifying urgent.
He hopes to submit a completed report on the failure in about three weeks.
As investigators of airline crashes know, a traumatic event such as a city’s loss of water isn’t the result of a single, catastrophic incident but the consequence of a series of events that cascade into an emergency.
“This isn’t one event,” Townsend said.
Timeline of events
To back-time the events from an operator dumping too much of a wrong chemical into the Swinney Switch tanks to their beginning, Townsend told the council, is to go back more than 20 years.
In 1994, the Corpus Christi civil engineering firm Urban Engineering — still under contract with the city — drafted a 23-page preliminary report on suggested improvements to Beeville’s water treatment facility.
It suggested a three-phase improvement plan, costing $3.7 million, to assure the plant could adequately provide the city’s future water needs.
The city did not act on the report. Its more than a dozen recommendations, Townsend told the council, are just as valid today.
Among them: utilize existing water wells in case of an emergency and the construction of a reverse-osmosis facility to remove salt from those wells. Twenty years later, existing and extra wells are under consideration; last year, voters turned down a bond issue for the RO plant.
As luck — or fate — would have it, a six-person team of TCEQ investigators, examining the plant’s records of a turbidity problem in 2010, was at the Swinney Switch plant when last week’s crisis began.
It immediately dropped their investigation to assist plant operators coping with the crisis.
On Dec. 6, the team issued a four-page scathing report, listing 43 criticisms of the plant, its operation and city administrators.
• The city’s focusing on cost savings instead of needs of the plant.
• Administrators not visiting the plant.
• No actions taken by the city to address the plant’s unacceptable conditions.
• Plant operators have failed to plan for necessary maintenance.
• No emergency response plan to address unusual conditions or events.
• Lack of routine meetings among utility supervisors.
• Procedures do not ensure communications between the staff during shift changes.
• Plant operators do not consistently document their activities — which will hamper Townsend’s attempts of formulating a complete timeline of last week’s crisis.
• Lack of a formal protocol of elevating unresolved plant concerns from the plant manager to the city.
• The city not notified of equipment failures and poor plant performance.
• High turnover rate.
• Improperly certified operators.
• Inadequate staff training.
• Inadequate alarms on the plant’s automation system.
• Plant operators responding incorrectly to unexpected or unusual situations.
• Procedures for collecting samples, conducting monitoring tests and calibrating lab equipment are outdated, inaccurate or nonexistent.
• Procedures for shutting down the plant in an emergency are outdated, inaccurate or nonexistent.
• Lack of preventive maintenance.
• Inadequate staffing.
In the report’s 43 points, the word “not” appears 22 times.
Not surprising, then, that last week an employee with a class D license — the lowest grade, requiring high school graduation, no experience and a basic 20-hour water course — against regulations, policy and a direct order, dumped a chemical into one of the water tanks, effectively bringing the whole system to a clogging halt.
That employee, who had worked at the plant for about four years and who has not been identified, was fired.
Normally, water at the plant is brought into tanks from Lake Corpus Christi. It is treated to reduce its turbidity, or the amount of particles floating in the water.
This is accomplished by injecting small amounts of a polymer — about a teaspoon full. The chemical helps the particles cling to each other, helping them sift to the bottom.
The operator dumped a gallon jug of the polymer in the tank.
Water in the tanks, normally clear of the particles, then goes into four tanks where gravity forces the water through a filter. After four hours, at the other end, is water clear enough to drink.
But the overabundance of polymer created a sludge the filters, designed to handle almost clear water, could not handle, like trying to force heavy tar through a funnel.
Each filter is required to be cleaned, or back-washed, about every 100 hours.
This is accomplished by taking clean water stored at the plant and forcing it, bottom to top, in the tanks. The procedure is supposed to take less than an hour.
Suddenly, plant operators were having to stop pumping any water to the city because it was needed to backwash four filters simultaneously.
Clean water is piped 18 miles from Swinney Switch to the city’s tanks — via a single pipeline.
But, not during the backwashing.
Finally, when water again could be pumped to Beeville, two critical factors intervened to prevent it from reaching residential faucets.
A number of water main breaks occurred over that weekend, including a substantial break on a pipe supplying water to the prisons adjacent to Chase Field.
Another factor is the antiquated, 1970s analog equipment at the plant.
“Do you know what I’ve inherited?” plant worker Sig Walters asked the council. “It’s a mess out there that you have no idea about. I’ve got mercury switches out there to control the levels in my tanks. Do you know how old that technology is? If I throw a switch to do something at one of the city’s in-town tanks, it takes eight minutes for the system to tell me whether a valve has opened or not. Everything is band-aided.”
It gets worse. Plant operators, whether they have the proper licenses or not, have no way of knowing how much water is in the town’s tanks.
So, although the Swinney Switch plant was pumping water full-bore to the city, operators had no idea that much of it was leaking through the water main breaks, or that over the Thanksgiving weekend, the water level in the city’s tanks had dropped to almost nothing and that no matter what they pumped to the tanks, they couldn’t keep up.
Full tanks, incidentally, guarantee an adequate supply of water for only one day.
Hence, what Carabajal termed a communications “disconnect.” Seeing how much water they were pumping to the city, plant operators assumed the city’s water pressure only was lower than normal and that soon the pressure would return to normal and the tanks would be topped — unable to know that the tanks were dry and hundreds of residents were calling the police asking why there was no water at all.
Vela has nothing but praise for his staff in trying to cope with the emergency. Lentz, for instance, was on the job for 37 hours straight. He was hospitalized after suffering a mild stroke.
“I have no reason to believe that all the parties involved were not doing everything in their power to get the power back, and doing what they thought was right,” Morrill said.
Vela resents what he sees as some people trying to obtain political advantage with the emergency by blaming the council. “I hate that. I don’t think that’s right. Something happened and we dealt with it.”
However, in responding to the TCEQ report about the lack of licensed operators, Vela said that he has ordered “all operators…to be trained in all areas of surface water operations and sent to TCEQ certified training classes.” While attended certified TCEQ classes may suggest the acquisition of a license, his answer does not specifically require a license.
The TCEQ, Townsend said, has assured Carabajal and Townsend full cooperation in adjusting water treatment policies and procedures to prevent a similar water failure from ever happening again.
Carabajal said last week’s crisis could spur voters to approve a bond issue to upgrade the facility. If not, he suggests, the council might acquire funds through certificates of obligation that do not require voter approval.
“Water is critical to our survival. This is not something we can do without. This is it. Business won’t survive. Who is going to want to invest in Beeville if we can’t secure water for them?