• Thu. Feb 9th, 2023

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Houston mayor defends boil order as millions remain without water

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner cautioned people Monday against comparing the city’s current boil-water order to last year’s “February freeze,” when the state’s electric power grid collapsed and 246 people died.

Although both were caused by power outages — the boil order when an outage Sunday at a water purification plant caused water pressure to drop, triggering concerns of possible contamination — that’s where the similarities end, he said.

“The February freeze is a totally sort of different matter,” Turner said during a news conference. “You lost power and water and things remained down for several days, OK? For several days.”

Turner shared a timeline of events that led to the boil water notice and said state law requires a city to notify the public within 24 hours from the time of the incident — a requirement he said the city had met. The order prompted officials to close public schools for at least one day. Turner was joined at the news conference Monday by Carol Haddock, the director of Houston Public Works.

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According to Turner, two transformers failed, causing power outages at the East Water Purification Plant, which he said provides water for much of Houston’s 2.2 million residents. There was no indication the water system had been contaminated, he said.

Water quality testing was underway, and the notice would be lifted by Tuesday morning at the latest, he said. The East Water Purification Plant is outside the city, in Galena Park.

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

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

Power was restored to the plant by 12:30 p.m., he said. If contamination occurred when the pressure dipped, it might still be traveling through the system, which is why the boil notice remained in effect despite satisfactory pressure, he said.

The city issued the boil water notice in an “abundance 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 instructed Public Works to do an overall review of our system, a diagnostic review, to see how we prevent this from happening again,” Turner said.

He said conversations between the city and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality took place from 2:43 p.m. to 6:40 p.m., and that sometime between 6 p.m. and 6:40 p.m. a decision was made that a boil water notice needed to 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 hadn’t been notified sooner, Turner said, “That’s why we have a process in place.”

“What I can say to people is that this was a situation that was not being overlooked, ignored,” Turner said.