TCEQ investigating Bastrop County Highway 290 chemical spill

Investigations

ELGIN, TX (KXAN) — Mike Flippen thought his 14-year-old was just trying to get out of a little yard work Sunday. They were tearing down a fence on his property line to make way for the Highway 290 widening just east of Elgin. 

What started with complaints of a headache and dizziness from his two sons, ended with a decontamination shower at the hospital. 

 “This is where they did all their fueling and maintenance and everything on all their equipment. And they had a fuel spill Saturday,” Flippen said as he pointed out the area where the highway contractor had two large storage containers parked. 

The containers were just feet from his property line. 

A series of pictures the Flippen family took Sunday shows what looks like a trail of fluid that flowed from the containers toward the family’s automobile repair shop. The family’s pictures also show what looks like something black and brown puddling between the containers and what looks like some sort of liquid and sludge mix coming from inside the storage containers. 

Flippen said his family had trouble breathing because of a strong chemical smell and were showing worsening signs of exposure. One 911 call later, emergency crews responded and the family was on the way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. 

When we showed up Monday morning, there was still a strong chemical odor.  

“The problem here is that they had a chemical spill and didn’t tell me about it–didn’t tell anybody about it. I had to report this and that’s not right,” Flippen told KXAN. 

“My 14 year old who got the worst of the exposure, they had to do the decontamination showers with him and flushing his eyes and stuff—he had hypersensitive skin, he had a real bad reaction to his eyes, his eyes were real bloodshot and runny,” Flippen said. 

When the family left the hospital, Flippen said he stopped at a hardware store to buy sterile metal cans. He went back to the site to collect water samples and dug up the dirt where the spill happened. The pictures also show a chlorinated tablets container sitting beside one of the storage containers. That container is full of black sludge and sitting uncovered. 

“I was sitting out here this morning at six o’clock and I watched the crew get here about 30 minutes early and start stripping this place up,” Flippen said. Flippen also had his camera ready and recorded the cleanup effort. 

That clean up also included moving the storage containers. The contractor, Flippen said, told his family they’d move the containers about a mile down Highway 290 toward where the center of the road work is happening now. 

We set out with Flippen to find the containers. We didn’t have to go far to find them. They’re around the corner from Flippen’s home, just feet away from his neighbor’s property.

Later that day, a woman wearing a TAS Environmental Services safety vest showed up at the spill site. The woman, who did not identify herself, asked Flippen to hide with her behind a parked SUV to discuss the spill and the clean up with him away from the view of our camera. 

“Nothing that they have on site in any of these machines is a reactive chemical–none of them. There’s hydraulic, there’s motor oil, there’s diesel fuel and then the DEF,” the woman explained to Flippen.  

DEF, also known as Diesel Exhaust Fluid, helps cut nitrogen oxide emissions in exhaust from diesel-powered engines, according to the U.S. Environmental Agency. The material safety data sheet provided by the manufacturer shows the solution has a “slight” Hazardous Material Information Rating. 

The chemical used to make DEF is Urea, also known as carbamide and is used in manufacturing drugs, plastics and fertilizer. The material safety sheet shows DEF “May cause gastrointestinal irritation, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Exposure effects to the eyes and skin are listed as a “moderate irritant” by the manufacturer. 

“We are going to attend to this stuff. It’s going to be easy peasy, it’s nothing to worry about, your son will be fine, you went to the doctor. And because you said there were fumes in the building, you did the right thing by telling you–but–like I said, it’s nothing that’s going to hurt them,” the woman said. 

The TAS Environmental representative also told Flippen she was calling in equipment to dig up the dirt at the spill site and would “berm up” around his property line. 

Angel Brothers is listed as the general contractor on the project. In a call with the company Monday, the company’s safety director, Brad Porterfield, told KXAN a sub-contractor spilled the DEF, but that it’s “Non-hazardous and it’s not dangerous to life and health.” 

“Porterfield also confirmed in the call the amount is “Less than 25 gallons” and that it “leaked from a hose” at the site. “There was a mountain made out of a mole hill,” Porterfield said in the call. 

The Lonnie Lischka Company’s logo is on the side of the containers. We spoke to Lonnie Lischka by phone Thursday, but Lischka referred us to Justin Lischka for comment. A message left for Justin Lischka at the company’s main office has not been returned.  

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has assigned an investigator to the case, according to the agency’s communications office. TCEQ is also “overseeing” the clean up of the site and will wait on the results of soil samples before the agency makes a decision on the spill. 

TCEQ confirmed to KXAN the investigation into any potential violations is still open. 

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