Texas’ top environmental officials are set to review a settlement between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and El Paso Water regarding drinking water violations levied against the utility’s water hauling trucks.

Last year, TCEQ fined El Paso Water more than $9,000 because the utility failed to meet basic safety measures to prevent contamination within its water hauling trucks, according to TCEQ documents.

The fine has since been lowered to $7,728 because El Paso Water rectified the safety concerns and water haulers were put out of service.

“We took this notice of violation seriously and used it as an opportunity to improve education and practices within our fleet maintenance organization,” Felipe Lopez, the utility’s chief operations officer of Distribution and Collection, wrote in an emailed statement.

TCEQ commissioners are scheduled to discuss and approve the $7,728 settlement between the state agency and the water utility on July 20, according to the meeting’s agenda. The settlement was reached in October 2021, documents show.

The six violations of state drinking water safety laws were found in September 2020, after a TCEQ compliance inspection of the utility’s water hauling facility in Southeast El Paso. The utility operates two 2,000-gallon trucks and several trailers with 1,000-gallon capacity and 500-gallon capacity that it uses to provide drinking water to customers in cases of unexpected main repairs or scheduled outages.

El Paso Water failed to implement basic safety measures to prevent water contamination, state inspectors wrote in an investigation report. These include an absence of downward-facing tank vents on the 2,000-gallon water truck, or closing valves with caps and keeper chains. Hoses used to transfer drinking water from the trucks to customers’ containers were unlabeled and were not stored properly to avoid contamination.

The lack of such safety measures create “moderate” potential risks to the public, meaning they could cause exposure to significant contaminants, but fall below TCEQ’s standards for endangering human health.

A screengrab of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality photos from a September 2020 inspection of El Paso Water hauling trucks, which found six violations of state drinking water laws. The hoses were improperly labeled and stored, according to the report. (Courtesy of TCEQ)

The investigation report also said El Paso Water did not keep records detailing water hauled, microbial sampling results, chlorine residual readings, dates of disinfection or the sources of water for the hauler trucks. Finally, the pressure tanks on the trucks had no release device or an easily readable pressure gauge. Both of these violations were considered major potential risks to health.

El Paso Water was required to show photos proving they fixed the problems and provide monthly reports of microbial sampling and other documents to TCEQ by Nov. 19, 2020, inspectors wrote in an October 2020 letter to the utility.

However, during a records review in April 2021, the state agency found the utility did not address the violations, and issued a $9,660 fine. In the settlement, the utility agreed to pay $7,728 outright in October 2021, and TCEQ deferred the remaining $1,932 on the condition the utility fixes the violations.

This is the first TCEQ fine against El Paso Water’s hauling facility on Pan American Drive. 

Officials from El Paso Water’s water hauling operations were not made available for an interview. The utility instead released a written statement, saying recordkeeping was improved and is now in compliance. The written response also said “supply chain issues delayed some corrective measures” needed for the larger water tankers, and the vehicles were taken out of service.

Denise Parra, an El Paso Water spokesperson, said the number of people served by the tankers since the beginning of 2020 wasn’t immediately available.

Utility staff did not answer why the violations were not originally addressed in 2020. Parra maintained the utility was only notified of the issues when the fee and letter of enforcement were sent out in April 2021, six months after the investigation report was released.

However, documents kept by TCEQ show the agency sent certified letters with remedies for the violations in September 2020, and spoke with utility staff at the time of the initial investigation.

TCEQ documents note inspectors interviewed utility staff members, including Lopez and Michael Dubrule, the heavy equipment supervisor. The agency required  Dubrule to sign a form “which documented the initial findings,” at the conclusion of the investigation in September 2020.

The TCEQ commissioners meeting on July 20 will be livestreamed starting at 8:30 a.m. MDT.

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New...