Houston mayor defends boil order as millions remain without water

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned people Monday not to compare the city’s current water-boiling order to last year’s “February Freeze” when the state’s power grid collapsed and 246 people died.

Although both were caused by power outages – the cook order when a power outage on Sunday at a water treatment plant caused water pressure to drop and sparked concerns about possible contamination – the similarities end, he said.

“The February freeze is a whole different thing,” Turner said during a news conference. “They lost electricity and water and things stayed off for several days, OK? For several days.”

Turner shared a timeline of events leading up to the boiling water notification and said state law requires a city to notify the public within 24 hours of the time of the incident — a requirement that the city of its I think I have fulfilled. The order prompted officials to close public schools for at least a day. Turner was joined at Monday’s press conference by Houston Public Works director Carol Haddock.

According to Turner, two transformers failed, causing power outages at the East Water Purification Plant, which he says supplies water to much of Houston’s 2.2 million residents. There is no evidence the water system has been contaminated, he said.

Water quality tests are underway and the notification will be lifted no later than Tuesday morning, he said. The East Water Purification Plant is located outside of town in Galena Park.

    East Water Treatment Plant in Galena Park
The entrance to the East Water Purification Plant in Galena Park, outside of Houston, on Monday. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

As of Sunday morning, 16 sensors marked drops below the minimum pressure levels of 20 psi, or pounds per square inch, required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Fourteen sensors marked incursions for just 2 minutes and two for nearly 30 minutes, Turner said.

Power was restored to the facility by 12:30 p.m., he said. If contamination did occur when the pressure dropped, it could still migrate through the system, so the boiling indicator remains in effect despite satisfactory pressure, he said.

The city issued the boiling-water notice in an “excess of caution” after the main transformer and its backup failed, Turner said. Even if generators had been turned on, the problem would still have occurred, he said.

“Now I’ve directed Public Works to do an overall review of our system, a diagnostic review, to see how we can prevent this from happening again,” Turner said.

He said discussions between the city and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality took place from 2:43 p.m. to 6:40 p.m. and sometime between 6:00 p.m. and 6:40 p.m. a decision was made that a notice of the Boiling water must be issued. The notice was sent to the public at 6:44 p.m. Turner said.

When asked why residents of the country’s fourth-largest city weren’t notified earlier, Turner said, “That’s why we set up a process.”

“What I can tell people is that this was a situation that wasn’t overlooked, it wasn’t ignored,” Turner said.

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