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Needle In A Hay Stack: Investigators Try To Figure Out How Chemicals Entered San Angelo's Water System

Courtesy of the City of San Angelo

City and state officials are investigating where and how a gallon or less of contaminants entered San Angelo’s water system around Feb. 8.

Officials said the contaminates, including benzene, acetone, and naphthalene, were detected in the water system in the PaulAnn and northern industrial areas of the West Texas city of 100,000 residents.

Some residents had complained of a smell coming from the water, and quick testing was performed.

A city-wide ban on water use was issued initially but was soon scaled back to just those two areas of the city.

“Currently, the PaulAnn and northern industrial areas are valved off from the rest of the system, and water is unable to recirculate from one area to another,” Allison Strube, the city’s water utilities director, said.

The city is now delivering water to around 29 residents who are still impacted by the discovery. Officials said they believe the contamination was a one-time occurrence and not an ongoing issue.

The city issued a disaster declaration to seek assistance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which dispatched inspectors from McAllen, Lubbock, Brownwood, and Abilene.

City officials compared the investigation to searching for a needle in a haystack. State inspectors have visited 85 businesses. They specialize in identifying deficiencies in commercial plumbing inspections. The city is conducting inspections too.

“The city has been doing customer service inspections of the area in the northern industrial and PaulAnn area. We’ve also been looking at the chemicals those companies use,” Strube said.

A water quality field test
Courtesy of the City of San Angelo
A water quality field test

The city plans to hire several more inspectors soon. It will also be implementing a more rigorous cross contamination program citywide to greatly reduce the likelihood of a repeat occurrence.

Locations with inadequate protection will be required to upgrade or install additional backflow devices to help protect the city’s potable water supply, according to a city news release.

Inspectors have not found direct evidence linking the contamination to a specific site. As the investigation continues in the area, more and more businesses are excluded as the potential source.

City officials said the affected areas will remain valved off from the rest of the water system until the investigation is completed and any problem is fixed. Testing in the valved off areas will be conducted weekly to make sure there are no contaminates found in the water.

Under Tier 2 regulations by the TCEQ, businesses are required to report hazardous chemicals stored on site that reach a certain weight threshold to state and local officials, such as a fire department.

If stored chemicals do not reach these thresholds, then they do not have to be reported to the state or local officials. Based on the volume of chemicals found in the water, city officials said it is not expected that the chemicals were being kept in reportable quantities.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reports benzene is made mostly from petroleum and acetone is used in plastics manufacturing. It can also be found in household items like nail polish and paint thinner.

Naphthalene is commonly found in creosotes. It is also found in mothballs.

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