AUSTIN (KXAN) — The day after the boil water notice was issued by Austin Water, former director Greg Meszaros said a staff member’s error at the Ullrich plant caused the three-day problem.
“It’s becoming clear that this was an error from our operating staff,” Meszaros said at the time. “Oversights in how they attended the process of treating water.”
On Tuesday, the former director and Assistant Operations Director Rick Coronado provided more clarity to Austin City Council on the mistakes that led to the notice. Meszaros announced his resignation Feb. 11.
Council members Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison called for Tuesday’s meeting.
According to the presentation compiled by Austin Water, crews were filling a basin with water to begin treatment. Then, a process called “seeding” occurs, where a mixture of water and processed solids is added to the basin. This seeding process is “typically stopped after a few hours” but was not stopped and continued for most of the night, according to the report, which resulted in the high turbidity.
“To all of my knowledge, our alarms were working during that system, and they were being acknowledged,” said Meszaros. “But the decision making for that is where things started to break down.”
He said employees did not call for help as the water continued to lose its clarity.
“I don’t entirely know why,” he said. “They felt they had it handled.”
Meszaros said during the meeting, “there is no evidence of gross negligence by employees.” He also said this was in no way due to any frozen infrastructure problems. Three employees were placed on leave.
The high-turbidity water also began to clog the filters. By 6 a.m. Saturday, Meszaros said the basin was “totally out of control” in terms of turbidity, so Austin Water shut down the plant to ensure no more of the mistreated water got into the reservoir.
The city’s other two water treatment plants were still up and running this whole time, which prompted some council members to ask why the notice was issued for the entire city.
Meszaros said Ullrich is the city’s biggest plant, and even though it may not pump water directly into every home, he didn’t want to take any chances.
“I made the decision,” he said. “I said let’s do a citywide boil water notice. It’s the most protective.”
The report stated, “water pressure and disinfection parameters remained consistent and within regulatory standards during this time,” so Austin Water did not have to shut water service off completely, and water was safe for certain uses.
Moving forward, Austin Water will continue to investigate the staff error and determine how the decision process was made inside the plant as issues arose with the water quality.
Council members also brought forward questions about staffing and training. Meszaros said there is a certification process for employees, but he admitted there’s been high turnover lately. Twenty Austin Water employees left in December, according to the organization.
While Meszaros said Austin Water isn’t “starved for funding;” one of his recommendations upon his departure involved strengthening Ullrich. An idea brought forth during the meeting is the implementation of remote observation technology that would help off-site supervisors get a direct look at current plant happenings.
Officials with Austin Water are discussing a credit for customers for the inconvenience and for extra water used to flush out pipes. Meszaros said a credit for about 2,000 gallons could be possible.
Discussion on the boil water notice will continue during Thursday’s full Austin City Council meeting, where members will vote on whether to issue an external audit of what happened.