By ANTON RIECHER
In an emergency session Friday morning (Jan. 20) the Devine City Council voted to establish a $1 million line of credit with the Lytle State Bank to cover interim costs on a multi-million dollar project to replace aging asbestos-cement water lines still serving the public.
District 4 Council Member Josh Ritchey said that a continuing gap in the loan funding committed to by the Texas Water Development Board made the council’s action necessary.
“The current contractor has been very, very good about working with us,” Ritchey said. “They’ve been working almost four months now without pay.”
“This past Friday’s emergency meeting was the first time council was made aware of the payment issue that had been going on,” Ritchey added.
The official notice posted for the Friday meeting warned that “the construction company working on the water lines has expressed its intent to stop working if it is not paid. The notice also states “if the construction company withdraws from the job the withdrawal will have an immediate effect upon the service of potable water to the citizens of Devine.”
For video coverage of the water line project being discussed during the Jan. 17 city council meeting visit the Devine News YouTube channel at youtu.be/9r2YNaB24aM.
In March 2018, the TWDB awarded the city a $500,000 grant and $9.4 million in loans to fund the project. However, new state management assigned to administer the funding have re-evaluated many of the previously approved aspects, according to the engineer.
Asked to comment on the action taken by the council Interim City Administrator Dora Rodriguez issued a press release stating the exact motion voted upon Friday.
“I move that the City of Devine establish a line of credit with Lytle State Bank up to an amount of One Million Dollars ($1,000,000.00) in order to allow the City of Devine to pay interim costs on the water line project that is funded by the Texas Water Development Board …,” the release states.
All payments on the line of credit shall be made from current revenues of the city, the release continues. The mayor and city secretary are authorized to “provide and execute” all documents that may be reasonably required by the bank.
A statement issued to us by the TWDB Monday in response to the city’s issues reads as follows:
“The City of Devine’s 2018 Drinking Water State Revolving Fund project began construction in July 2020 on the first phase of a planned four-phase project. The first contract for Phase I was terminated by the City in April 2021, and in June 2022 , the TWDB approved a second set of plans for Phase I.
“In October 2022, the City notified the TWDB that the overall project had insufficient funds and that it had bid, awarded, and started construction under a second contract for Phase I.”
“The TWDB is currently working with the City to determine eligible costs for reimbursement. When this review is complete, the next step will be to review the bid, followed by potentially providing a notice to proceed for the second contract and release of funds for construction.”
According to TWDB, the city’s water distribution system includes asbestos-cement lines, cast iron lines and undersized lines.
“The City is currently under a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality agreed order for failure to comply with the maximum containment level for asbestos in the water distribution system,” the TWDB SFY 2018 Drinking Water State Revolving Fund annual report states.
The system poses as potential threat to public health and safety and may lead to diminished water pressure and adversely affect the overall water quality distributed to consumers, the report states.
Asbestos-cement pipe, with an average life span of about 70 years, was used extensively in the mid-1900s in potable water distribution systems. Asbestos fibers have long been linked to serious diseases including asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
At least one aspect of the ongoing friction with TWDB came up at the council’s Jan. 17 regular session when Mayor Cory Thompson asked the council to ratify a change order in the water line project contract deleting a $39,500 bid item for the removal and disposal of 3,950 linear feet of asbestos-cement pipe.
“We got notified by the Texas Water Development Board that we essentially either stop the project or we go ahead and make this modification,” Thompson said. “So we talked about it, we talked to (City Attorney Tom Cate) and we said ‘Alright, we need to go ahead and sign this today. We can’t have everybody stopping.”
That action was taken on Jan. 6 but still required council approval to ratify it, he said.
City Engineer Raul Garcia Jr. said that the original purpose of the project was the replacement of the asbestos water lines.
“At that time (TWDB) had approved the plans and there was a categorical exclusion environmentally to do that,” Garcia said at the Jan 17th meeting.
However, a recent turnover in staff at the TWDB led to further review of the documents submitted by the city, Garcia said. The agency reversed its earlier approval to remove and dispose of the asbestos laden water lines.
“They wanted to back track to Phase I to see if we had done anything and, luckily, no asbestos lines were removed,” Garcia said. “Nothing has been done on this phase yet.”
Rather than remove the lines and risk spreading asbestos fibers Garcia told the council he recommended keeping the lines in place but unused.
“What we are going to do it keep the line in place, abandon them and, at a later date whenever the city can afford it or we get funding for it we remove at that time,” Garcia said.
Several council members questioned whether abandoning the lines was the best course of action.
“Basically we’re going to leave them there to die,” District 5 Council Member Debbie Randall said.
Ritchey said leaving the lines in place “sounds like a huge liability moving forward.” District 2 Council Member Angela Pichardo and District 3 Council Member David Espinosa questioned whether the asbestos might leach into the environment as the disused pipe continued to decay.
Garcia noted that any AC pipe abandoned in Texas Department of Transportation right-of-ways are required to be filled with concrete. But the city would probably limit its interaction with the pipe to cap it and compact the area with added backfill.
“That’s where we have problems with the asbestos,” Garcia said. “When you break it, when you saw cut it, it’s the dust and residue that is dangerous.”
On a motion by Randall, seconded by Pichardo, the council voted to approve the change order. District 1 Council Member Ruffino Vega was absent from the meeting.
However, resolving the issue of removing and discarding the asbestos-cement pipe proved insufficient to satisfy the TWDB with the status of the entire project, Ritchey said Monday. Hence, the emergency meeting held on Jan. 20.
“This is just more fallout from that new person coming in and applying their own projected role to the project,” Ritchey said. “They want to reapprove everything the last person approved. How much was in error by the last person I don’t know. “
The city administration has reached out to U.S. Representative Tony Gonzales for his help in negotiating a solution with the TWDB, he said.
Devine’s water pipe replacement project has had a troubled history even before its current woes. In March 2021, Phase I was suspended after the council’s decision to fire the general contractor, Triun LLC. However, work with Triun resumed in September. In August 2022, the council approved a $3.47 million bid by Qro Mex Construction, Inc. for the current phase of the project which includes installation of 20,343 linear feet of 8-inch water main, 3,327 linear feet of 5-inch water main, 6,613 linear feet of service line, plus various valves, hydrants and fittings.
One aspect of the project creating water supply problems for resident of southeast Devine was also discussed at the Jan. 17 meeting when Pichardo reported widespread water outages affecting her district beginning the previous week.
“We haven’t had water in our district for three to four days now,” Pichardo said. “They turn it off during the days. As I was leaving we still hadn’t had the water turned on for the residents who are pretty upset.”
Rodriguez confirmed that an unknown number of homes were experiencing low water pressure during weekdays requiring contractors to establish two emergency “tie-ins” to replenish the system.
“Yes, we’ve been getting lots of calls,” Rodriguez said. “Again, this is something the contractors have to do to be able to tie-in to the new lines to get away from the asbestos.”
At the root of the complications is trouble finding the older lines due to a lack of good maps dating back to their original installation, she said.
“Come to find out there was an issue with one valve,” Rodriguez said. “They had to go back and get hold of our engineer because, again, like I said, that area of town we don’t have the maps. For whatever reason, back in the 1950s, we didn’t have good maps.”
The contractors traced as much of the existing network as possible before construction began “but there are some things that are popping up that no one was aware of, even public works,” Rodriguez said.
The affected area lies southeast of the Union Pacific railroad tracks and runs south along FM 3176 and as far east as Live Oak Drive. Included in the area are major businesses such as Wal-Mart and Sonic located on East Hondo Avenue.
Service was restored over the January 14 weekend but cutoffs resumed the following Monday, Pichardo said. In particular, residents were annoyed that door-to-door notification was not received until after the cutoffs began.
Rodriguez said the contractor, Qro Max Construction, were responsible for distributing the notifications. However, the work originally was scheduled to begin Jan. 17, not as early as Jan. 11, she said.
Ritchey said Monday that the water service disruption has since been resolved.
By ANTON RIECHER