Erin Brockovich spoke about water safety, chlorine and Plano's drinking water at a meeting in Frisco on Thursday.EXPAND
Erin Brockovich spoke about water safety, chlorine and Plano's drinking water at a meeting in Frisco on Thursday.
Brian Maschino

UPDATED: Brockovich Raises Doubts About Information Coming from North Texas Municipal Water District

UPDATE, 3:30 P.M. The North Texas Municipal Water District just released its response to claims that it failed to do required tests at one of its water treatment facilities (because the plant was closed). It's free of swear words, which we suspect took some effort on the part of the district's staff. Here's most of it, minus some duplication from the last update.

WYLIE, TX – April 6, 2018: Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have notified the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) that a violation posted online on Wednesday is being rescinded. The violation, cited by environmental activist Erin Brockovich during an appearance in Frisco Thursday, was for failing to conduct water samples at the district’s original water treatment plant in Wylie last year. That plant has been closed for renovations since January 2017 and is not producing water. According to a TCEQ statement sent to NTMWD, no tests are necessary on a plant that is not in operation.

Another issue raised by the Safer Water North Texas group involves an open records request made to NTMWD. The district released 8,833 pages of requested documents on Wednesday but the group leaders announced they had difficulty opening some of the files. The district’s records manager is working with the group to resolve the issues and make sure they have full access to the documents provided.

The citizen group also questioned redacted communications between district officials and its attorneys with the district’s Austin law firm. As a normal practice, any correspondence with attorneys is protected under attorney-client privilege. No data related to water samples was withheld. The privileged materials will be turned over to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for review.

“We remain committed to engaging and listening to the people we serve,” stated Tom Kula, NTMWD executive director. “We will continue to provide reliable and factual information regarding the safety of our drinking water supply.”

UPDATE, 3 P.M.:  Environmental activist Erin Brockovich drew an audible gasp from some audience members in Frisco, gathered Thursday night to discuss complaints about chlorine smell in their tap water, when she dropped a bombshell on them: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Wednesday had issued the North Texas Municipal Water District a "notice of violation" for failing, in all of 2017, to test the water at one of its treatment plants for a whole host of nasty things no one should drink, like benzene, lead and radioactive stuff. Well, suck those gasps right back in, people, because there's a reason those tests weren't done: The plant was offline for maintenance and not producing any water. All year and even now. No water, no tests, that's the rule. Here's how the TCEQ explained it in a press release about the notice of violation being rescinded today:

The North Texas Municipal Water District Wylie Water Treatment Plant public water system was issued a notice of violation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on April 4 for failing to report sample results for drinking water constituents for the 2017 monitoring period at one of their entry point facilities. An entry point is a sampling location that represents where treated drinking water enters the distribution system that delivers water to customers. The monitoring constituents that TCEQ did not receive sample results for at entry point EP001 are volatile organics, synthetic organics, radionuclides, metals, and minerals.

On April 6, the TCEQ was notified that entry point EP001 at the NTMWD Wylie Water Treatment Plant public water system was removed from production status in January 2017 for construction. The TCEQ received documentation confirming that the entry point EP001 has been inactive since January 2017, and no water from this entry point entered the distribution system from that time to the present. Monitoring or sampling is not required at inactive/off-line facilities. Therefore, the TCEQ has rescinded the 2017 chemical monitoring violations for NTMWD Wylie Water Treatment Plant’s EP001 entry point. The TCEQ’s Safe Drinking Water Information System/Texas Drinking Water Watch database has been updated with the current activity status of the EP001 facility. Once EP001 is put back into service, NTMWD must contact TCEQ to update TCEQ records and schedule sampling for compliance with drinking water regulations.

Andrea Morrow, media relations manager for the TCEQ, says the water district didn't tell her agency that the Wylie plant was being taken offline in 2017, so when the state didn't get the test results it was expecting, its database generated a notice, and someone at the TCEQ reviewed it and notified the water district, which then replied. It's just coincidence — and really bad luck for the media reps dealing with the fallout — that all this happened the day before and after Brockovich was in town to tell nervous water district customers that their water is less than safe, according to Brockovich.

ORIGINAL STORY: Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who incited outcry three weeks ago on social media after calling out Plano for the level of chlorine in its drinking water, questioned the accuracy of information coming from the North Texas Municipal Water District at a community meeting in Frisco on Thursday evening.

Brokovich, the subject of an eponymous 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts, said the water district received a violation notice this week from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for failing to perform routine tests last year for volatile organic compounds, which include chemicals such as benzene.

“Are they in your water, are they not?” Brockovich said. “Why are you back-dooring this community? I think you have a right to know if they are or not in your water. I would demand it.”

A spokesman for the TCEQ said the agency was preparing a statement on the violation notice and will release it Friday afternoon. The Observer will update this story.

The recently formed group Safe Water North Texas hosted Thursday night's talk by Brockovich and her colleague Bob Bowcock. It gave locals a crash course on water disinfection by the area’s water supplier and cities and how the process can lead to unsafe drinking water.

Less chlorine and better filtration make for safer water, Brockovich's colleague Bob Bowcock said at the meeting in Frisco.EXPAND
Less chlorine and better filtration make for safer water, Brockovich's colleague Bob Bowcock said at the meeting in Frisco.
Brian Maschino

The worries started when Plano residents began complaining of a strong chlorine odor in water coming from their faucets. Residents said high levels of chlorine corrode plumbing, cause rashes and skin irritation, and make the water smell like a public swimming pool.

The North Texas Municipal Water District, which supplies Plano's water, responded with tests that showed the level of chlorine was within limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The heavy smell of chlorine in some areas was the result of the district's annual "chlorine burnout" procedure. Normally, the district disinfects water with a mixture of ammonia and chlorine to produce a compound called chloramine. The added ammonia extends the amount of time chlorine remains in the water lines, allowing it to reach throughout the city's pipes, which is important in Texas because high water temperatures in the summer cause chlorine to evaporate quickly. Besides cutting the smell of chlorine in the water, chloramine also leaves behind a scummy "biofilm" of dead bacteria in pipes, which the district burns out periodically by leaving out the ammonia.

The chlorine smell led to complaints on social media, which led Brockovich to weigh in.

The overarching argument made Thursday night, championed by Bowcock, was to lower the amount of chlorine in the water, which is at at the top of the range the EPA says is OK. His suggestion: Reduce chlorine by half and switch to safer — yet costly — disinfection and filtration processes.

“A maximum contaminate level in the Safe Drinking Water Act is the ceiling, not the floor,” he said.

“When you tell me the water is regulatory standard, that doesn’t always mean it’s safe,” Bowcock said. “It’s good water, but it can be better.”

The Thursday program marked an end to a daylong event planned by the environmental activism team, starting with a tour of the NTMWD facility in Wylie. Brockovich was not present.

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