In response to the city’s evaluation regarding the November TCEQ investigation report over the July 2021 boil water notice, supporting its decision to fire two water plant employees; attorney Carlos Flores objected to the evaluation on behalf of the employees and highlighted items in the report he believes contradict the city’s statement.

“A review of the TCEQ report makes clear the City of Laredo’s statements regarding what the TCEQ report found are blatantly false,” Flores wrote. “The city’s justification for firing Tony Moreno and Ricardo Gomez has been that the 2021 water boil notice was caused by low chlorine levels leaving the Jefferson and/or El Pico Water Treatment Plants.

“The TCEQ’s report also has to make that finding in order to support the city terminating Moreno and Gomez, which it did not. Nowhere in the report does TCEQ state or even allude to low chlorine levels leaving the plant, much less that low chlorine levels caused the 2021 water boil notice. Without those findings, TCEQ essentially absolves Moreno and Gomez.”

Flores referenced two internal TCEQ emails from Joel Klumpp, Plans and Technical Review Section manager, that stated preliminary reviews of data provided to the agency confirmed that Laredo’s challenge to maintain an adequate residual was due to nitrification and poor disinfection management at one or both of the plants.

They also stated that the low chloramine residuals can also be a sign maintenance is required within the distribution system.

“This is a critical finding to support Moreno and Gomez’s arguments because if the city’s allegations were correct, TCEQ would have added the following to the violation: The city failed ‘to maintain a minimum total chlorine residual of 0.5mg/L throughout the distribution system at all times due to low chlorine levels leaving the water treatment plants,’” Flores stated. “However, TCEQ did not make this finding.”

One email was sent out on July 7, during which Klumpp outlined a malfunctioning chlorinator at the time that did not allow to achieve the target residual. On that day, a new chlorinator was scheduled to be received and implemented that evening, but that still affected production at the Jefferson water plant.

It is important to emphasize that the TCEQ in their report did not state that the two employees were or were not the root cause of the boil water notice.

Regardless, Flores issued out a statement that lambasted the decision by the city to fire both Tony Moreno and Ricardo Gomez, and he claimed that the reason for the 2021 boil water notice was the failure by the city to implement a Nitrification Action Plan.

The City of Laredo chose not to further comment beyond its original statement earlier this month claiming the investigation supported their findings.

“The City of Laredo is pleased to learn that the results of the TCEQ investigation categorically support the decision initially made by the Utilities Director Arturo Garcia and later upheld by the Municipal Civil Service Commission to terminate both employees,” the city said in a November statement.

“A selective interpretation of the complaint report has been disseminated by attempting to attribute the low chlorine levels to the water distribution system based solely on the issuance of one violation. In truth, nothing contained within the findings negates the fact that there was failure to perform the duties on the job site by (both) the terminated employees, which directly contributed to the city-wide boil notice. Rather, there were no less than six violations issued against the city related to the employees’ water treatment oversight.”

On Sept. 9, in the case of Tony Moreno v. the City of Laredo, Judge Joe Lopez of the 49th Judicial District determined that the city wrongfully terminated his employment by failing to give him fair notice of policies or standards he allegedly failed to meet. Lopez ordered the city to rehire Moreno with the same rate of pay and benefits.

In spite of the judge’s decision, the city refused to rehire Moreno. LMT previously reported that the city stated it “respectfully disagrees with the judge’s interpretation of the case” and was appealing with the Fourth Court of Appeals. It added that the city “has no plans to reinstate Mr. Moreno” and that his actions “put this community and its health in jeopardy.”

TCEQ Report

Within the 33-page report, the TCEQ gives a detailed account on the investigation that took place for the 2021 boil water notice and gives additional background on multiple complaints and violations by the city over the years.

During the course of the months-long investigation, TCEQ Environmental Investigator Elsa Hull documented numerous violations and discrepancies within the local water system. This includes occasional communication issues between the city and the TCEQ.

On multiple occasions, Hull states that documents and information requested had not been received in a timely manner. This stems into violations for failure to properly report data on the Surface Water Treatment Plant, failure to verify calibrations for online turbidimeters and chlorine analyzers on a weekly basis for both plants, and the Nitrification Action Plan.

For example, Hull requested tank diving reports, pressure plane details and sedimentation basin information from Moreno, which the investigation document states were not received.

Additionally, it seems clear the city had trouble isolating the boil water notice, as Hull asked if it had been isolated. Without proof of the notice being isolated, it was expanded throughout the city.

The TCEQ also found a discrepancy on July 22 regarding the individual filter effluent turbidity data recording. Between Sept. 10-23 of 2020, the recording was offline but there was data reported for the SWMOR. Operators told the TCEQ that they had no explanation for the data reported as no grab sample logs for that time frame were located.

This continued as there was no filter backwash or filter-to-waste recorded on the operators log during the same time period, and the current operator still had no explanation of that data reported.

As for the Nitrification Action Plan, the city received a violation for its failure to develop and implement a NAP. They added that after training by TCEQ experts between Oct. 30 through Nov. 1, additional follow-up training was recommended but the city denied the offer.

During the city council meeting on July 12, the city stated it will begin working with TCEQ staff for the training in developing and implementing a NAP.

Additionally on July 27, the TCEQ stated that maintenance was needed for several tanks to remove sediment and address corrosion. These include the La Bota, Killam/TAMIU, Milmo, Sierra Vista, MHOC, San Isidro, Highland/McPherson, Lyons, Bartlett, Highway 359, Las Blancas, South Laredo and Cuatro Vientos tanks.

Hull wrote that a majority of the water storage tanks require maintenance and the TCEQ will reevaluate them during the city’s next compliance investigation.

cocampo@lmtonline.com

Be safe and make sure to boil your water or consider buying a water filtration system like the AquaOx Water Filter.

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