Citizens voice concerns about asbestos levels in City water

The City of Devine has been battling negative perceptions of the water supply since seeing spikes in asbestos levels in 2016.

Refugio Rodriguez, Jr., a representative from the Texas Rural Water Association (TRWA) addressed 14 Devine residents concerned about asbestos levels in the City’s drinking water in a public meeting last Tuesday, May 2.
Interim City Administrator Dora Rodriguez, Public Works Director Ismael Carrillo, Mayor Bill Herring, City Attorney Tom Cate, and Council members Hal Lance, Steve Lopez, and Kathy Wilkins were also at the meeting.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for asbestos in drinking water is seven million fibers per liter (MFL), based on a municipality’s running annual average (RAA). The City’s water supply measured 14 MFL for ASB-01 in the first quarter of 2016; 17 for MFL ASB-01, 11 MFL for ASB-02, and 10 MFL for ASB-03 in the second quarter of 2016; and 18 MFL for ASB-01, 13 MFL for ASB-02, and 10 MFL for ASB-03 in the third quarter of 2016.
Asbestos pipes are still used to pump water from wells into town, and there are still some asbestos pipes used inside City limits. Samples are taken at five different testing sites on private property, all of which are designated by TCEQ.
The City posted a mandatory notice informing residents that the water had exceeded the MCL for asbestos on Nov. 28, 2016. Four separate notices about the violation were also sent out in City bills.
Testing done on water samples taken in Nov. 2016 showed that asbestos levels had returned to normal.
City officials are actively pursuing over $7M in grants and forgivable loans to replace the asbestos pipes, and now take their own water samples alongside TCEQ to send to an independent lab that is certified to test for asbestos levels in water.
R. Rodriguez, a member of the Environmental Services Department with TRWA, was contracted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to attend the meeting. According to TRWA’s website, the Environmental Services Department, in part, “provides assistance to water and wastewater systems needing help to solve financial, managerial, and technical operational problems, providing guidance on regulatory compliance requirements.”
He explained that as asbestos pipes degrade over time, minute particles flake off and settle into the water.
“When you look at the numbers of what [the EPA] say is bad, in this case seven million fibers per liter, that is really very, very small,” R. Rodriguez said.
He likened it to one packet of artificial sweetener dissolved into a liter of bottled water.
“If you put it in one liter of water, a thousand milliliters, and you dissolve it, do you think you’re going to taste that sugar?” R. Rodriguez asked. “Do you think that water that you digest is going to stay within you?”
He said that because people drink so much water, it gets flushed from the body.
“If [asbestos levels] were a problem, I wouldn’t be speaking to you,” R. Rodriguez said. “A TCEQ representative would be speaking to you. They would have already taken some type of corrective action to say this water is unsafe to drink.”
R. Rodriguez said his job was to provide the City with options to deal with the asbestos, including identifying asbestos pipe infrastructure, determining if the spike in asbestos levels originated in a specific area, flushing the pipes, and replacing asbestos pipes.
“I can understand your concern, but I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” R. Rodriguez said. “I’ve laid asbestos pipes…to say it’s bad for you and that the water’s not quality, I can’t concur with anything unless TCEQ were to say yes, there’s a problem.”
R. Rodriguez’s remarks seemed to do little to mollify the concerns of those citizens in attendance.
Jennifer Hammond, who recently bought a house in the City, said she wouldn’t have bought the home had she known asbestos levels would spike.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen 50 years down the road to somebody, because that’s how illness happens,” Hammond said. “Taking a shower in hot water, you are inhaling it…I know hot water creates steam, or if you use a humidifier for a child, they’re breathing in that water.”
Hammond said she was a nurse for 42 years, and believed that drinking the water could affect the liver and kidneys.
“I’m not a medical person and I can’t respond to that,” R. Rodriguez said. “I have no data, no environmental data to support that.”
Harvey Squire questioned why the state set the maximum contaminant level so low if it was of no concern.
“It is not the state of Texas, it is EPA that sets standards,” R. Rodriguez replied. “The state only follows the standards that EPA sets.”
“Well if they feel like there’s a cause for it, you’re saying disregard it, that there’s really no problem,” Squire said.
“No, I didn’t say disregard it,” R. Rodriguez said. “I said that the maximum contaminant level that you find in the water, when we’re talking millions or billions of parts, is very small.”
Elia Merritt expressed concern about the possibility of asbestos causing cancer.
R. Rodriguez pointed out again that he was not a medical expert, adding, “How many gallons of water would you have to have drunk to say a medical thing has occurred?”
Merritt said she wasn’t willing to take that chance.
“Okay, so you have the ability to take an alternative source if you wish, is that correct?” R. Rodriguez asked.
“I have the alternative, but how about other people?” Merritt countered.
D. Rodriguez pointed out that the water samples are taken on private property, after the water has passed through City meters, and that could have affected the outcome of the tests.
“We have no control over what people put in their property,” she said. “Could they have worked on their pipes, could something have happened? To me, that’s telling you that’s not a true reading.”
Gloria Gutierrez said she was no longer drinking City water, and that her biggest concern was for kids, especially at school.
Herring said that the water lines running to DHS and DMS are PVC, as are the lines running to the newer additions to Ciavarra Elementary and the Intermediate school.
“We can go up and sample those ourselves,” Herring said. “We’re certified to do that if they want to. We will come by your house and do that.”
He noted that the City will continue to test the water, and plans to place fire hydrants on their side of the testing sites. Building on D. Rodriguez’s earlier point, he said that there are five different kinds of pipes in his house.
“If you took a sample in my house, as many times as Herrera and Bo-Fessional have been in my house doing work on that, no telling what’s stirred up in there,” Herring said. “So that’s why we want to take the sample on the City’s side of the water meter…these old houses around here, no telling what’s been done in there. You got lead sauter in some of them, there’s no telling what you’re going to pick up. And that’s why we’ll get a better reading of Devine water when we start these sample places when we have the hydrants on the City side.”
Phil Montgomery suggested testing both the water at its sources at the Edwards and Carrizo wells, as well as the effluent water.
“That will tell you if there’s contamination in between,” Montgomery said. “I don’t know who commingles their water with wells and all this other stuff, we have no way of knowing that, but that would give you a starting off point if you test the source and test the effluent and see what the difference is. It’s not very scientific, but eliminate the obvious.”
R. Rodriguez said he had made those recommendations to Carrillo.
Herring said that replacing the asbestos pipes was the City’s top priority, and that grant writers Langford and Associates were already working on it.
“They have a very good record of getting everything we want,” Herring said. “Water and sewer are the number one grants that you can get…we have not been turned down for any grant for any water or sewer with them doing it.”
By Marly Davis
Staff Writer