By: Freya Preimesberger

Corpus Christi issued a warning to its approximately 320,000 residents on December 14 to cease all use of tap water for any purpose. A news release said that boiling, filtering, or adding disinfectants to the water would not make it safe, and that tap water should not be used for drinking, brushing teeth or showering. For nearly four days, residents were forced to use only bottled water as schools and businesses throughout the city were forced to close. On December 18, the city lifted the ban. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are investigating the problem, but no conclusions have been made regarding chemical contamination of the city’s water supply.

City officials discovered that the asphalt emulsifying agent Indulin AA-86 leaked from a mixing tank on a private site, likely due to backflow. The leak happened at an asphalt plant leased to Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions. Valero Energy Corporation employees at the asphalt plant noticed “milky” water coming from a faucet in an administration building twice, and notified municipal workers both times. The municipal workers found a tank containing Indulin AA-86 and hydrochloric acid did not have a backflow protection device, which the state of Texas requires for industrial plants. According to ABC news, officials from Ergon told Corpus Christi officials that each 3,300 gallon batch in the mixing tank held 24 gallons of Indulin AA-86 and 10 gallons of hydrochloric acid. Ergon claimed that the tank’s backflow went into a water line not directly to the city’s water supply. The attorney general will decide whether or not to take legal action.

Several people reported symptoms similar to those caused by Indulin exposure, although the cause of their symptoms has not been confirmed. Indulin AA-86 exposure can cause target organ damage and burns to the eyes, respiratory tract and skin; ingestion requires immediate medical attention, according to the manufacturer. However, over 115 water samples taken from throughout the city tested negative for Indulin. Officials are investigating the origin of the leak and how much Indulin was released, as well as whether it entered Corpus Christi’s water system. During the ban, public schools and business were closed and hospitals were forced to initiate a disaster plan. Stores reportedly sold out of bottled water and long lines with up to three-hour waits formed. Corpus Christi received donations and assistance from throughout to country and private groups. Residents criticized the city’s officials and its alert notification system, which notified less than half of the city’s population about the tap water ban.

This most recent ban was the fourth in Corpus Christi in the last eighteen months. In July 2015, the city found the bacteria Escherichia coli present in some water samples, and gave out a notice lasting two days that asked residents to boil their water. Low levels of chlorine in the water supply prompted another boil water notice in September 2015, which lasted 10 days. In May 2016, another water boil notice was given due to the presence of non-harmful bacteria in the water supply and active for 19 days. Multiple boil water notices led to the city designing and executing a “source-to-tap” plan on improving water quality. Much of the plan had been completed in November, before the tap water ban, according to the city’s interim director of water and utilities. Corpus Christie’s water struggles draw comparisons to the water crisis of Flint, according to Texas Monthly. Flint’s water supply was found to contain lead after the city switched its source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. Lead in old pipes leached into the water supply and exposed up to 12,000 children to lead, which can build up within the body and cause developmental delays, weight loss and other symptoms. Emergency managers and city officials from Flint were charged with felonies for their supposed parts in lead entering the water supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency ensures that public drinking water supplies throughout the country are safe and free of contaminants. Contaminants, such as chemicals, minerals, pesticides, fertilizers, waste from manufacturing processes or sewage material, can cause health problems, including reproductive or neurological disorders. Children, the elderly, pregnant women and immunocompromised people are especially at risk of becoming sick. The passing of the Safe Drinking Water Act allows the Environmental Protection Agency to determine and oversee water quality standards. In the case of problems in the water supply, your local public water system is responsible for notifying you. If a boil water notice is received, drinking water should be heated to a rolling boil for at least a minute, and for three minutes if located at an altitude above 2,000 meters. Chemicals, such as bleach, chlorine or iodine, and reverse osmosis filters can remove some pathogens from water.

In case an emergency event occurs, the Center for Disease Control recommends that households establish an emergency water supply. An amount equivalent to one gallon per day per person should be stored for at least a three-day period, although a two week-supply is preferable. Household chlorine bleach, containing 8.25 percent sodium hypochlorite, should be stored for disinfecting water. Water containers should be clean and durable, and preferably food-grade. If bottled water is unavailable, drinking water should always be boiled if possible; if it appears cloudy, it should be filtered or allowed to settle first. If boiling is not possible, water should be disinfected using chlorine bleach as indicated on the product label and allowed to stand for 30 minutes. Portable water filters can be used to remove parasites from the water, while chlorine or bleach can kill bacteria and viruses. If the above methods cannot be used, the water can be distilled. In the case of no water supplies being available during an emergency, other water supplies can sometimes be found. Houses’ water heater tanks, liquid from canned fruits and vegetables and melted, uncontaminated ice cubes can serve as alternate sources of water. Outside of homes, rainwater and still or moving bodies of water can also be used as water sources. Water with strange odors or colors or water contaminated with toxic chemicals should not be consumed.