Residents of San Angelo, a West Texas city in the Concho Valley, have gone days without safe drinking water after city officials discovered industrial chemicals contaminated the water system.
The crisis — which stretches into at least its fifth day Friday — in the city of 101,000 people has left residents frustrated and scared after the city told them Monday night to cease all uses of water other than flushing their toilets. They were also told that first boiling the water before use would not make it usable and, instead, only more dangerous.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found the water, which smelled like chemicals or mothballs, is contaminated with benzene, acetone, naphthalene and other chemicals consistent with industrial production.
The winter storm sweeping the state has complicated the struggle to restore safe water to the community and thwarted efforts to get water to those who need it. Hazardous road conditions have slowed water testing, as the tests need to travel more than three hours from San Angelo to a lab in Austin, and the conditions also delayed opening water distribution sites. At least one local group had to cease meal and water deliveries to the elderly on Thursday.
“We’re facing crisis upon crisis, with a global pandemic, arctic blast and water issues,” said Ashley Ammons, president and CEO of the United Way of the Concho Valley.
The city has narrowed down the investigation to the area in and near the PaulAnn neighborhood, where Debra Treadway lives on the northeast side of town.
“How long is this going to go on?” she said.
Boiling the water would only make contamination worse, releasing the chemicals into the air. Without more information available about the extent of the contamination, the only action that was absolutely safe was to stop using it. Benzene is known to cause cancer. Acetone can be used industrially as a solvent, and naphthalene can be produced from coal tar or oil for use in plastics, pharmaceuticals and other products, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I’m wondering what health effect this is going to have on me,” Treadway said.
The EPA limit for benzene in water is 5 micrograms per liter. The state’s first tests in the northeast areas of San Angelo on Monday found benzene concentrations ranging between 17 micrograms per liter to as high as 177 micrograms per liter — 35 times the legal limit.
Earl Lott, deputy director of the office of water for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said there is no EPA standard for the other contaminants.
“They’re not something you’d expect to see in drinking water,” he said. “No amount of those is acceptable.”
Naphthalene concentrations were found in one test to be as high as 141 micrograms per liter, according to data from the TCEQ.
“I sort of thought it smelled like propane gas,” Kinley Hurt Briseno said of the water in her home.
She’s a mother of two young children and resident of San Angelo. Briseno became concerned about her family when her husband took a shower Sunday night. He said he felt nauseous. She felt sick, too.
“We were light headed,” she said.
They decided to eat out that night and later left town to stay with family.
“We packed our things,” she said. “I can’t realistically keep two kids in the house with no water.”
The cause of the contamination is still under investigation. But, according to city and state officials, the source is likely an industrial company connected to the water system. Water may have flowed into an industrial plant, came into contact with dangerous chemicals there, lost pressure, and flowed back out into the system where it infiltrated nearby homes.