Carelessness From Former Officials Could Have Led To Aransas Pass “Do Not Use” Water Order

Water seeps from the back of the new Harbor Freight location in Aransas Pass, Texas on June 26, 2021. (Matt Pierce/Getty Images)

Imagine on a Friday night around 5:00pm that you are given a notice that you cannot drink the water that comes out of your tap. You havre been at work all day in the summer heat and the “Do Not Use Order” says that you can’t even bathe in the water, give it to your pets to drink or even brush your teeth. Not even boiling the water will help. Officials tell you that it might be this way for days until specialized labs both in and out-of-state can confirm if the local water supply has been contaminated. That is the exact scenario that played out for residents of Aransas Pass, Texas recently.

City of Aransas Pass officials were notified that there was a possibility that the local water might have been contaminated by a chemical—possibly antifreeze from a local retail center that was charging their fire sprinkler system. Local officials sent water samples to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who confirmed that there might be a problem. Just before 5:00 pm on Friday, June 25, 2021 an order was issued telling residents of the problem. But this isn’t where the problem started.

Several years ago back around 2005 backflow preventers were mandated on fire sprinkler systems in the state of Texas. Backflow preventers stop water that contains pollutants or contaminant from entering into the safe drinking water system. These devices are everywhere from retail centers to lawn irrigation sprinkler systems. In short these devices keep public drinking water supplies safe.

The location where the sprinkler charging was taking place was located just across the street from a city water station. (Matt Pierce)

Officials in Aransas Pass say that a specific building was required to install a backflow preventer back around that time. At some point a blue tag was placed on the fire sprinkler system indicating that a backflow preventer was in place and operational. However, officials believe that verification of the system being in-place and operational may never have been conducted.

When contractors began to charge the fire sprinkler system at the retail location in Aransas Pass, they realized that there could be a problem and that contaminants may have ended up in the public water supply making it unsafe to use. The city was notified and, according to them, protocol was set off to make sure that proper state officials were notified and that the public was safe.

Residents lined up throughout the day on Saturday, June 26, 2021 behind the Aransas Pass Civic Center to get water that was provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Texas based grocer H-E-B. (Matt Pierce)

By Friday night word was getting out that there was a problem and that residents and businesses should not use the water for any reason except for flushing toilets or washing clothes—everything else was off limits.

Samples were rushed to labs in Houston, Texas and Savanna, Georgia for testing. Why so far away? Because the lab needs specialized equipment and processes in order to test for contaminants like antifreeze

Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dispatched a jet to rush the samples out of state. Just after 12:30 pm on Saturday that plane had made it Georgia and testing had begun.

But on Friday officials began working to make sure that citizens had water to drink and cook with. Early Saturday morning, just hours after the notice was issued a distribution point was established behind the local civic center and hundreds of pallets of drinking water came from both state and private sources. City staff and volunteers began distributing that water to those who needed it the most. Throughout the day a steady stream of citizens lined up, orderly taking what they needed. The process continued well after dark.

On Saturday many of the local restaurants were forced to close their doors. Aransas Pass City Manager Gary Edwards acknowledged the financial impacts of the emergency on his community. “Certainly there will be financial impacts to the community,” Edwards said.

Aransas Pass City Manager Gary Edwards stands watch over water distribution behind the Aransas Pass Civic Center. Edwards says that there will likely be financial implications at all levels of chain. (Matt Pierce)

Thankfully, those financial impacts might not end up being as bad as they could have been. By Sunday afternoon officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had issued a notice that the water was indeed fit for use and that residents and businesses could once again work towards getting no their lives back to normal in this Coastal Bend community near Corpus Christi.

Luckily, it turned out that samples were deemed safe. But what if they had not been and how do communities keep even the threat of this from happening once again? It is unclear just how many of the backflow preventers are actually installed and operational around the state. While officials are optimistic that most of those who need to have a backflow preventers installed have them. On the other hand, there is little certainty as to how many are not either properly installed or even installed in the first place. That is what has so many concerned. At the end of the day, experts say the key word here is responsibility at levels from the site owner to government inspectors. Without integrity within the system, it could be just a matter of time until something far worse takes place.

Water drains from the parking lot of the retail location where the suspected release is believed to have originated from. (Matt Pierce)

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