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Toxic water in South Texas colonias costs residents precious health and money

Araceli Palomino at her home in San Pedro, a colonia in Brownsville.
Gaige Davila
Araceli Palomino at her home in San Pedro, a colonia in Brownsville.
This reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Araceli Palomino and other colonia residents waited to enter the board meeting of their water supplier, Military Highway Water Supply Corporation. They were tired of having to deal with the corporation’s foul and even toxic drinking water.

When Palomino finally entered the conference room, the mood was tense. When she spoke during the public comment section, she directed her ire at the board members.

“I don't think you want to pay $200 a month for dirty water," she told them, “for dirty water that is damaging your family.”

Customers said the company routinely ignored their pleas for help while they paid up to three times more than that of neighboring public water systems, including rural ones.

They also said that Military Highway Water Supply's poor water quality has even ushered in a predatory market that profits off the problem, in the form of water softener and filtration companies.

“It's getting to this point that it's not only affecting economically wise but it's also affecting our health, our families,” Palomino told TPR in her home. “We want clean water. We want what we're paying for.”

In 1973, Military Highway Water Supply Corporation became the first big rural water supply corporation dedicated to expanding water delivery to the colonias.

Palomino and her family live in a colonia called San Pedro, where the water comes from the company’s largest water system, Las Rusias. The system serves approximately 20,000 people. More than a third of them still live in colonias.

During the almost 15 years the Palominos have lived in San Pedro, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has issued 82 violations, including multiple instances of illegal levels of carcinogens in the tap water.

Palomino has spent years trying to get attention on the issue.

"We talked to the mayors," Palomino said. "We went all the way to the senators, the governor. But nobody seems to care.”

Now, Palomino and more than 450 other plaintiffs have turned to the courts.

In a lawsuit, they alleged personal injuries and even deaths from exposure to many toxic products and substances in the Las Rusias system.

Araceli Palomino's documentation of Military Highway Water Supply Corporation's water quality.
Gaige Davila
Araceli Palomino's documentation of Military Highway Water Supply Corporation's water quality.

The most prevalent of these toxins is arsenic, which naturally occurs in the area’s soil and leaches into groundwater.

The water system regularly exceeds the federal maximum allowable arsenic level, which is 10 parts per billion.

“Arsenic increases the risk of many diverse types of diseases, including cancers and non-cancerous diseases, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes and even cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Taehyun Roh, an assistant professor in the Biostatistics and Epidemiology department at Texas A&M.

He studies the health impacts of low-level arsenic exposure in drinking water. Roh said that even legal arsenic levels may be unsafe. “At this moment, some, even many scholars think the current 10 parts per billion is not enough to protect the public health,” he explained.

Roh said that research shows ingestion of arsenic at levels even below the legal limit is associated with disease, especially over long periods of time, because it accumulates in the system.

That’s why other states, including New Hampshire, which naturally have high levels of arsenic in their soil, lowered the maximum contaminant level to 5 parts per billion.

If Military Highway Water Supply was held to that standard, it would be in violation of federal law since 2001.

Roh said arsenic is hard to remove, especially when the system’s infrastructure is dated like Military Highway’s. “If the system is not upgraded, or has an aged infrastructure, then it cannot actually efficiently remove the water contaminants," he said.

In 2017, the company began operating a $3.9 million reverse osmosis microfiltration plant dedicated to removing arsenic from the water. But it didn't work. In 2021, the system had the highest arsenic levels on record, resulting in a fine of around $5,000.

Customers like Palomino were skeptical of the water supplier’s fund usage. “I don't think they're using the money wisely at all, because we wouldn't have this problem if they were,” she said.

Arsenic isn’t their only problem. In 2017, the TCEQ issued an investigation after the Las Rusias plant’s water exceeded maximum contaminant levels for another type of carcinogen, trihalomethanes.

Unlike arsenic, trihalomethanes are a byproduct of water disinfection with chlorine. An excess of these compounds results from faulty operational procedures.

Despite the 2017 investigation and fine, the Las Rusias plant committed the same violation two years later. Now, Palomino has no faith in those running the system.

She and her family no longer consume the water. Instead, they buy water to drink, brush their teeth and cook with. “I have to go for three to four packages of water a week,” she said.

That’s not the end of her expenses.

Her water frequently comes out brown, which stains her laundry. Palomino has had to replace multiple sinks because of hard water damage.

Araceli Palomino shows pictures of brown water from her sink and skin problems she attributes to the water.
Gaige Davila
Araceli Palomino shows damage to her sink (top) and skin (bottom) that she attributes to the water.

Some customers say that when they’ve gone to the company’s office to show how the water has ruined their belongings, they’re handed single-use portions of detergent.

TCEQ records showed official complaints about water color and odor go as far back as 2003.

Now, residents across the Military Highway systems said they’ve seen brown water come out of their faucets more frequently in recent years. The company blamed the aging infrastructure.

Despite the increasing regularity, customers said the company doesn’t flush lines to clear the water until they complain.

Meanwhile, water filtration and softener companies have profited from the poor water quality.

Residents across the system said these businesses frequently visit their colonias to sell products.

Brownsville-based WaterBros is one such business. Earlier this year, one of its Facebook ads read, “Military Highway Water Supply Corporation water is one of the most polluted waters in southern Texas.”

Many customers don’t have the disposable income to pay for such a system upfront, which leaves them with difficult financing options.

County records showed that the companies that financed water filtration purchases often put liens on customers’ homes.

This happened to Edgar Flores’ mother who lives in El Ranchito, a colonia near San Benito. The financing company put a $7,000 lien on the house for a softener and filtration system.

Edgar Flores stands by his house in Ranchito, a colonia near San Benito.
Gaige Davila
Edgar Flores stands by his house in Ranchito, a colonia near San Benito.

“It didn't work. The water would still come out yellow,” Flores said of the water filtration system.

When Flores tried returning the equipment, the seller said it was up to the financing company, which wouldn’t give the money back.

Flores still had to pay the lien on his mother’s home before he could purchase the property.

The water continues coming out bad twice a month.

“It smells like sewage, kind of. And the water's yellow. Like if someone just left pee there, like in the tubs or whenever you open the faucet,” he said.

The company recently hiked up its prices. Nonetheless, Flores said he accepted the situation because he has no other options.

“There's nothing we can do, and they know there's nothing we can do," he said. "And they're pretty much gonna say 'we don't want it, just don't pay for it,' and then not have water, you know? So you're kind of stuck with it."

In recent years, the company has received about $3 million in financial assistance from the government to update Las Rusia’s water lines and treatment plants, as well as replace storage tanks.

This includes $2.2 million in financial assistance from the Economically Distressed Areas Program, or EDAP, that the Texas Water Development Board approved just this month. This money will be used to replace and move a water line.

Palomino said the money is late.

“Five years ago, they told us that they were going to ask for a grant to fix this problem. And apparently, they haven't fixed anything,” she said.

The EDAP program exists to help water suppliers like Military Highway Water Supply Corporation. But despite decades of complaints, the Texas Water Development Board said the company hadn’t applied in a long time.

Even now, the new Las Rusias water line won’t be done until 2025. Palomino said something has to change because she fears for her family’s health.

Military Highway Water Supply Corporation's San Pedro water tower.
Gaige Davila
Military Highway Water Supply Corporation's San Pedro water tower.

“You want to help the colonias and stuff like that, but not like that. Not killing them little by little,” Palomino said of the delays. “That's what they're doing. They’re killing us little by little.”

Military Highway Water Supply Corporation did not respond to TPR's requests for comment. It denied all allegations in its response to the lawsuit.

This reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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