Early during the week of August 21 complaints were being made about the color of water coming from the city’s water treatment plant. On Friday, August 26, city residents were notified by a “Reverse 911” phone call that city-supplied water needed to be boiled before consumption because of an improper level of chlorine residual. The problem was expected to be corrected within 24 to 36 hours. City employees continued to work on Saturday to correct the chlorine imbalance, but then other problems developed.
By Sunday afternoon, August 28, water was no longer available to most city residents and businesses.
As reported in a separate article in this edition, and as posted earlier on the Eagle’s Facebook page, the licensed operator of the city’s water plant is no longer employed by the city after he left the job to deal with family matters. After his departure, and in addition to the chlorine issue, serious problems – pump, electrical, and system failures – developed and the plant was no longer producing water. With outside assistance and considerable efforts by city employees, the city began operating the plant again by mid-afternoon on Monday, August 29, and the refilling of the city’s water storage tanks began. It is hoped that things will be back to normal by the end of the week or sooner.
The city’s Gary Bundick will be replacing the city secretary as the supervisor of the city’s water and sewer department employees, and Bundick will report to the city secretary. This still leaves the water treatment plant, which was built in 2009, without a licensed operator as required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Someone will have to be recruited for this difficult-to-fill position.
Meanwhile, interim arrangements must be made to the satisfaction of TCEQ for the operation of the plant. The city is currently in contact with contractor personnel who would be qualified to operate the plant. (The cost to build the membrane filtration plant was $5.6 million, which if properly maintained and operated is expected have a life of 25 years. The life of the plant could be extended by installing one more membrane filtration unit for which the plant was designed.)
In addition to not having a licensed operator at the plant or someone truly knowledgeable about its operation, the problems were also caused by equipment failures. Whether these failures were caused by improper operation of the plant or would have occurred anyway is not known. But the lack of effective oversight of the plant’s operation, as well as inadequate maintenance of the facility, are thought to be contributing factors to the failures. It is the City Council’s responsibility to find out what actually happened and why and to take steps to protect against this happening again.
In addition to the great inconvenience caused residents and costs incurred from buying water supplies, businesses also suffered economic losses. The operation of the Kimble Hospital was also affected in its handling of patients and being unable to conduct certain medical tests in the laboratory. Arrangements were made to obtain bottled water and a portable potty was installed.
Representatives for the Hill Country Care Center, the community’s local nursing home, said that efforts to obtain alternative water supplies began when the city water was discolored early in the week. They said that the outpouring of support from the community was outstanding, with water and other support being provided by many generous individuals.
Complaints have been heard about the city not communicating enough about the status of fixing the problem and the lack of early action to obtain alternative water supplies. It is clear that the city did not have a plan to respond to this type of emergency. Mayor Russell Hammonds states that this will corrected promptly. Beginning immediately the City Council will now be holding daily meetings to deal with the current situation.
Much concern was expressed about what would happen if there were a fire in these circumstances. When asked about this, Fire Chief Cecil Conner replied that the Volunteer Fire Department had a contingency plan for responding to such an event and that existing arrangements with other entities and the use of specialized firefighting equipment would provide some firefighting capabilities.
Mayor Hammonds, who worked on site throughout the duration of the plant’s failure, advises that the City Council will be taking a close look at what happened and how to avoid it in the future. This will include reviewing the operation and maintenance of the city’s water treatment plant, including how to extend its operational life. Personnel matters will also be addressed.
(Editor’s Note: The City Council must get to the bottom of what caused this serious problem. They also need to determine how to improve the city’s response to this type of emergency. The Council’s findings should be shared openly with the public. While the Council is fulfilling this obligation, it should also assess the reputedly high level of turnover of city employees, why this is occurring, and if it contributed to the problem. It is up to the citizens of the community to make sure these serious problems are corrected. This can be done by making their views known in Council meetings and/or directly to individual Council members and the Mayor.)