LHWSC cited by state for system violations


Although an investigation of the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp. identified a number of moderate to serious violations last spring, the Board of Directors, the City of Liberty Hill, the engineer and the City’s attorney were not informed until last week that there was a problem.

A letter from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dated April 18 notified the LHWSC of a list of deficiencies and directed that compliance documentation be submitted to the agency by June 16. The letter was addressed to a former LHWSC President at the LHWSC current post office box and was copied to then-General Manager Wendell McLeod at the LHWSC office on Grove Street. McLeod, who was hired in July as the City’s Water Utility Director, continues to serve as Secretary-Treasurer on the LHWSC Board of Directors.

“These are major system deficiencies,” said City Attorney Kerry Russell. “By not responding, they (LHWSC) have admitted guilt, making it very difficult for their attorney to defend their actions.”

Richard Hamala, a Pflugerville attorney who represents the LHWSC, did not immediately respond to a request for an interview Tuesday.

Liberty Hill City Manager Manuel DeLaRosa told Radio Free Liberty Hill today that the letter from TCEQ was brought to his attention less than one week ago by the City’s engineering firm, Steger Bizzell. When he suspected the LHWSC Board of Directors was not aware of it, he forwarded the document to them and discussed the matter with McLeod.

DeLaRosa said McLeod acknowledged receiving the letter in April and told the City Manager “he was working on it.” However, McLeod did not submit a written response or any documentation to TCEQ as required by the June 16 deadline.

The City of Liberty Hill took over the day-to-day operations of the water system last month after the LHWSC Board and the City Council approved the arrangement. The decision was made on the heels of months of allegations of mismanagement by some members of the LHWSC Board who claimed McLeod was to blame for various administrative problems. Regardless of those concerns, however, McLeod and his wife were given employment contracts with the City in accordance with a transfer agreement approved by both entities and TCEQ last spring. Although TCEQ granted the City’s application to take over the water system months ago, the final merger has not taken place as the City awaits approval for financing to assume the loan debt of the LHWSC.

DeLaRosa said he planned to inform TCEQ this afternoon that McLeod is a city employee now and no longer serves in any type of managerial position.

“Experience tells me that if I reason with them (TCEQ) and explain what has happened here, that they will work with us,” said DeLaRosa.

Perry Steger, whose firm has a contract to provide engineering services for the City and the LHWSC, said all of the violations noted by TCEQ were problems he could have corrected quickly had he been notified by McLeod when the letter was received.

Russell went a step further by noting that the issues documented by the State were problems previously reported to McLeod by his law firm with consultation from Steger prior to the approval of the transfer agreement.

“We knew there were problems, be we couldn’t get Wendell to admit it or do anything about it,” Russell said.

DeLaRosa said that even though the letter was addressed to a former officer of the LHWSC, it doesn’t take responsibility away from the LHWSC.

DeLaRosa said he viewed the violations cited by TCEQ as moderate to serious, with the more serious being those that impact the health and safety of employees and residents living near water wells and storage tanks.

By June 1, the LHWSC was supposed to have shown the state that gas chlorination equipment and cylinders of chlorine were being housed in rooms or buildings that were separate and apart from all mechanical and electrical equipment. On March 4, the date which the violation was discovered, that was not the case at Pump Station #1.

“The risk is minimal, but it does exist,” said DeLaRosa, adding that the system should continually be monitored for safety.

Other violations listed include the following:

* Failure to ensure that any potable water storage tanks are thoroughly tight against leakage, or located above the groundwater table, or do not have any walls in common with any other plastic units containing water in the process of treatment. This violation was in reference to Pump Station #3.

* Failure to have all groundwater plant piping constructed to minimize leakage of the Pump Station #5, specifically the sample tap on Well #5 was leaking.

* Failure to keep a copy of a thorough, up-to-date plant operations manual for operator review and reference. The State said the document should contain routine maintenance/repair procedures, as well as protocols that should be used in the event of a natural or man-made catastrophe and well as contact information for water system personnel, system officials and government agencies to be contacted in the event of an emergency.

* Failure to develop and maintain an up-to-date system monitoring plan. Such a plan, which should be available at each water plant, should identify all bacteriological and chemical sampling locations, describe sampling frequency, and specify the procedures and labs to be used to comply with monitoring requirements.

“The system did not have ANY monitoring plan for the system,” the document states.

“If we don’t respond (to TCEQ) accordingly and don’t remedy the issues, then we do open ourselves up to enforcement (by TCEQ),” he said. “They look for a history of non-compliance before taking more serious action.”

DeLaRosa said he was informed by LHWSC Attorney Hamala that Hamala had communicated informally to some officials at TCEQ that the water system was making an effort to correct the problems. However, Hamala’s communications were with employees in a different division of the agency and were not submitted in writing.

“This burden is still on the WSC,” DeLaRosa said. “This will be paid for by WSC funds, and it’s for them to correct as quickly as possible.”

When asked whether DeLaRosa had seen all of the records of the LHWSC, he said he was “confident that all of the records are available. I will eventually find everything.”

In his experience, he said “employees tend to minimize the significance of whether some issues are important or not.”

As a result, DeLaRosa, who was hired as the City’s manager in April, said he has spent a great deal of time looking at two to three years worth of records and reviewing agreements. In his research, he has not found any previous notices of violations from TCEQ regarding the water system.

“Anytime you get a letter from a state agency, it is serious and must be addressed,” he said.