Don’t Drink the Water: Corpus Christi Industries Leak Chemicals into Public Water System

Michael GrossmanDecember 16, 2016 7 minutes

Ah, Corpus Christi. The brackish water and scorching sands of this Gulf city are often a spot for frolic and tourism around Spring Break. All you need is a tequila-heavy margarita, 2 pints of sunscreen, and a hideously airbrushed tank-top commemorating your visit to "CCTX," and you can snatch all that up while heading out to the shoreline.

What you can't have right now, though, is clean water.

What Does That Mean?

According to a recent news release from Corpus Christi officials on Wednesday, December 14, industrial tanks are alleged to have released two industrial chemicals into the public water supply. While the quantity of the chemicals is not yet confirmed, they have been identified as Indulin AA-86 and a lesser quantity of hydrochloric acid. The information was released approximately 12 hours after the city imposed a mandatory ban on drinking or using tap water.

Originating from a factory in the city's industrial area, the spilled Indulin AA-86 is identified as an asphalt emulsifier. Estimations suggest anywhere between three and 24 gallons of the chemical agent got into the city's water supply. City spokespeople say the tests conducted by their personnel showed no signs of contamination beyond the industrial district where the accident happened. A more comprehensive battery of tests was also conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and those results are pending.

Indulin AA-86 is classified as hazardous by the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200). Direct exposure to the substance can cause eye or skin irritation or burns, severe respiratory tract irritation, and in the case of ingestion, it can cause serious gastrointestinal damage.

Further investigation suggests that the issue may be traceable to an asphalt plant owned by Valero Energy Corporation. A spokeswoman for the company issued a statement denying its involvement, citing "a backflow issue from third party operations" conducted by another company on Valero's property--Mississippi-based Ergon Asphalt & Emulsions Inc.--as the true culprit. This allegation has yet to be verified, but if confirmed would reduce Valero's culpability. According to a timeline released by Valero's public relations office, the company had attempted to verify a chemical spill with Ergon as early as December 8, but had little success in opening dialogue with the firm.

"We do not believe this issue is being caused by Valero's Corpus Christi refineries. While the City continues to investigate this issue, we do not believe the City's water has been impacted," the statement reads. "We believe it is isolated to a lateral industrial line. Valero is offering its resources to assist the City in isolating the issue and to help confirm this has not impacted the City's water supply."

What Is the City Doing About It?

Mayor Dan McQueen and others said the first priority is ensuring the public's safety. The news release went out about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday via email. Local grocery stores were shortly flooded with many of the city's estimated 300,000 residents, who quickly bought all stock of bottled water. Within an hour of the email, bottled water supplies were gone.

Pallet of water bottles
Pictured: the only current recourse for citizens.

Three prior water-safety notices have been issued by the city within the last year and a half, though each was bacterial in nature, not chemical. The prior alerts were "boil notices," advising citizens of a method to render drinking water safe. In this instance, officials recommend not using tap water at all until results can confirm its safety: "Only bottled water should be used for all drinking, beverage and food preparation (including baby formula and juice), making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes or clothes, washing hands, and bathing until further notice," the release states. "Boiling, freezing, filtering, adding chlorine or other disinfectants, or letting the water stand will not make the water safe."

Mayor McQueen has stressed that the city's water maintenance systems did not fail in terms of disinfection, as they had on a few occasions in the past when diluted chlorine levels allowed the propagation of bacteria in the pipes. The most recent contamination resulted from an industrial spill and was discovered Wednesday evening. Employees of a nearby property reported a "milky, sudsy" sheen on the water when an employee went to wash his hands.

Christus Spohn Health System, the city's largest hospital system, said in a press release that it was "taking every precaution to ensure a healthy and safe stay for our patients and their families...We have the appropriate resources, along with well-established policies and protocols to ensure the safety of our patients." Another Spohn official confirmed it will continue to receive all trauma cases and perform scheduled procedures.

City-run public transportation has suspended fare requirements for citizens today, given the hardship of potentially making several stops in search of bottled water. The city has secured contributions of more water bottles from neighboring communities, which it will distribute for free to citizens. Nevertheless, locals protest these actions that appear to be only palliative instead of real remedial action.

How Bad Is This Problem?

Which problem? The problem where an entire city's supply of usable tap water, including that flowing to other nearby towns in the county, is off-limits? At least until the test results come back, let's qualify it as "very bad." With that said, though, there are no definitive reports so far of injury or illness from residents exposed to the chemicals. Four unconfirmed incidents of symptoms in keeping with Indulin AA-86 exposure (skin and intestinal damage) have been received, according to city reports. All four incidents originate in a section of the city that has not yet been cleared for any form of water use, while other zones of Corpus Christi are now permitted to bathe in, and in some cases drink, the water.

While the Spohn medical facility is able to stay open, many smaller businesses and clinics have shuttered their practice until the water has been cleared for safe consumption. This includes a number of dental practices, the city Department of Public Safety, and most schools within the independent school district. Citizens struggled in the early hours of Thursday morning to find water to get through their day, encountering one "Sold Out" sign after another.

What Can I Do if I Get Sick?

First and foremost, look after your health. Initial assessments by the city suggested that at worst, the chemical in the water might cause nothing worse than a stomachache, but because the concentration levels are not yet entirely known, it is hard to project exactly how an exposure might affect someone. Additionally, some areas might experience higher Indulin AA-86 concentration levels, which might magnify any potential injuries.

If you drank some of the water before you learned about the advisory and you're experiencing serious symptoms, call 911 or poison control right away. Your physical well-being is the most important thing. Save any records of diagnoses and procedures related to your symptoms.

When you're deemed safe by doctors, you should consider contacting a personal injury law firm. It cannot be denied that negligence must have occurred in a scenario where municipal water supplies in their entirety were deemed unsafe to use. Several local businesses and residents have already filed lawsuits against Valero and its subsidiaries for damages, based on the potential for physical harm as well as lost wages and commercial opportunity.

The suits allege Valero Marketing and Supply company, Valero South Texas Marketing Company, Valero Bill Greehey Plant, Valero Refining-Texas LP and Ergon Asphalt & Emulsions Inc. "wantonly and recklessly exposed unsuspecting business owners, employees and residents to toxic chemicals, contaminated their water and forced the closure of their businesses." The current plaintiffs allegedly seek damages of over $1 million each, citing lost business and wages due to the closures.

Valero can attempt to assert its innocence if Ergon, a separate company that shared Valero's owned industrial space, was technically the firm that created the spill. However, because the issue occurred during Ergon's execution of its duties as a tenant on the property, that could put the petroleum firm on the hot seat as well.

What Can We Take Away from This?

The people of Corpus Christi will likely take this episode as a lesson in preparedness. That is not in any way to shift the blame to them--industry, be it Valero or Ergon or both, appears to be the villain here--but groggily rising to fight over bottles of water with other ill-tempered residents can't have improved anyone's already-crappy day. In terms of personal well-being, I might recommend finding a spot in the closet or garage for a few gallons of clean water. If you never need them, so much the better, but it'll help the next time a boil notice (or worse, as in this case) appears in your email. In the meantime, should the current issue cause health problems, please know the law may well be on your side. I encourage injured parties to at least seek the advice of a personal injury attorney; most firms don't charge for a consultation, and there's no such thing as being too well-informed.

The City of Corpus Christi needs to take a good hard look at its infrastructure and determine where improvements can be made to guarantee clean drinking water year-round. I suppose I can accept a single boil alert as a one-time mistake--unexpected bacteria introduced to the aquifer. Three boil alerts, though, puts some strain on that credulous goodwill. Follow those with an industrial chemical spill that ostensibly could poison residents, leaving them devoid of a public utility, and scrambling to provide them with large quantities of plastic water bottles (which is going to be a noisome blow to the environment in and of itself) is indicative of failure to learn from the past. City planners should look into better contingency arrangements so they aren't caught with their swim trunks down if such issues should happen again. Studies suggest that over half of the city's iron water-delivery pipes are overdue for maintenance or replacement; clogged or breaking pipes can lead to backups and standing water, which greatly increases the chance of bacterial propagation.

People not directly affected by this problem (those reading about it while sipping a glass of tap water in another city, for instance) will hopefully note that companies aren't immune to the consequences of their carelessness. There's a headline every other day lately about large corporations being held accountable for negligent employee behavior and faulty or dangerous products. They are not immune from the law, and if their actions hurt someone in a way that could have been predicted or avoided, they deserve to be penalized by the legal system. Victims of chemical toxicity in the municipal water supply should receive compensation for damages, be they physical or economic.

Looking at you here, Valero and Ergon.