A harmful chemical from an industrial plant leaked into the water supply in Corpus Christi, forcing school closures, disrupting commerce and causing a run on bottled water at supermarkets in the Gulf Coast city.
The spill happened Wednesday at a plant that didn't have the equipment or infrastructure needed to prevent it, though the owners of the property and plant claim it does, city spokeswoman Kim Womack said at a news conference Thursday.
"In the simplest terms, someone was careless when they were injecting chemicals with a pump and ... when the injection occurred it crossed over into our water system," she later told KRIS-TV.
Womack told the station that they were not releasing the name of the company leasing the plant because they are still trying to work with it.
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"We feel like if we release their name, they will shut down and not work with us," she said.
Anywhere from three to 24 gallons of the chemical got into the water system. It is an asphalt emulsifier that can burn the skin in concentrated amounts.
During a short news briefing, angry residents scolded city leaders for not fully explaining how the water supply might have been contaminated.
After Womack briefly spoke and talked about an anonymous donor providing the city 27,000 cases of bottled water, a group of residents began chanting, "What do we want? Clean water! When do we want it? Now!"
City officials warned in a statement that "Boiling, freezing, filtering, adding chlorine or other disinfectants, or letting the water stand will not make the water safe." They didn't indicate when they might lift the order not to use the water.
City councilman Michael Hunter told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times early Thursday that it was unlikely that the leaked chemicals were concentrated enough to do harm, but that officials must take every precaution.
He said the problem was first reported by a local company that said the water coming from its faucets had a sheen. He did not identify that company or the nature of its business.
The discovery of the leak led to the closure of schools, disrupted businesses and led to long lines at grocery stores, as residents stocked up on bottled water. At least two large retailers, H-E-B and Wal-Mart, sent for more bottled water to be shipped in.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Thursday it is working with officials in Corpus Christi. TCEQ said it has initiated "multiple measures," including sampling "to determine the extent of potential impact." TCEQ said agencies it's coordinating with include the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott said his office is coordinating with the TCEQ, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Department of State Health Services on the issue. The Texas Division of Emergency Management is coordinating shipments of drinking water to the city.
It is just the latest in a string of water scares for this Gulf Coast city of 320,000 people.
In May, Corpus Christi officials issued their third boil-water advisory in a year. That notice lasted two weeks and officials at the time said it was largely a precautionary measure taken 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. Many of the pipes were installed in the 1950s and when they decay they're prone to collapse or to slow water flow, allowing bacteria to fester.
Civic leaders have expressed concern that recurring water advisories and warnings could cause long-term harm to the area's vibrant tourism business.
In a statement, Attorney General Ken Paxton said:
"Every resource of my office will be made available to help regarding the water supply incident in Corpus Christi. We’re monitoring the situation closely. Price gouging on bottled water will not be tolerated. My office stands ready to assist Corpus Christi and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality when they know the full scope of the water contamination problem. In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers are with Corpus Christi residents during this difficult situation."