A 100,000-gallon spill at the Odem Street wastewater treatment plant on Nov. 26 was attributed on operator error and was the second there in just over two months, according to records obtained by the Victoria Advocate.
The records, obtained through the state’s public-records law, detail the 10:30 a.m. spill that day and the city’s response, which included a flurry of emails among city officials and then between the city and state regulators.
The nearly 100 pages of records also show how it took over a day to notify local government officials and the public about the spill, which was contained to city property surrounding the plant at 1301 SW Ben Jordan St.
In emails to and from local officials and in the notification to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, officials noted the spill was caused when a technician on duty turned on too many water pumps after noticing the flow of water in the treatment plant was moving too slowly.
However, the flow was moving slowly not because of the pumps but because a filter was clogged.
“The Operator on duty noticed that the flow was low and was attempting to switch pumps at the lift station and inadvertently turned on too many pumps. The excess flow blinded the bar screen and caused the primary structure to overflow,” according to an email from treatment plant manager Curtis Davis to Travis Prater, a natural resources specialist with the commission.
In an interview with the Advocate, City Manager Jesús Garza said hiring and keeping employees has been difficult for the city and other employers, and this also impacts training. He called the spill “a teaching moment” that will be used to train all operators at the city’s wastewater facilities.
“I personally have not spoken to the operator,” Garza said. “What I do know is that the operator, I guess when they stumbled upon whatever issue, made some moves to try and mitigate it, and it just ended up … just making it worse.”
He said “recruitment and retention is a big issue for us” and “one of the things that’s really hard for us is to keep experienced operators.”
He said the chain of events is “definitely a teaching moment for the operator and just everything else. And just fortunately, the issue didn’t get too completely out of hand. The issue was simply just, I guess, an issue on our piece of property.”
In notifying the public and government officials, which is required by the commission when 100,000 gallons or more are spilled, the city’s news release blamed the weather, not operator error, saying “increased rainfall caused stormwater to overflow.”
“The overflow was caused by debris blocking the primary bar screen, which caused water to overflow onto the plant site and adjacent City property,” the news release said. “The unauthorized discharge was contained within City owned property and is being treated with sodium hypochlorite.”
The bar screen is like a pre-filter, according to one manufacturer’s website. “A bar screen is a filter system designed to remove objects such as rags, wipes and plastics from wastewater and protect pumps from clogging. It is the first level of filtration used by wastewater treatment plants.”
The bar screen used at the Odem Street plant was the subject of another incident in mid-September, when 1,500 gallons spilled.
Officials don’t know precisely when that spill occurred, but it was between 2 p.m. Sept. 9 and 9:15 a.m. Sept. 10.
“We had a spill over the weekend at the Odem st WWTP primary treatment structure,” plant manager Davis wrote to city Engineer Ken Gill and city employees Roland Rodriguez, operations manager, and Gregory Rodriguez. “The bar screen faulted and we had an overflow of the primary structure. Approximately 1500 gallons overflowed the structure. The operator immediately got the screen running and cleaned up the spill.”
A half-hour later, Davis sent an email to plant operators.
“I want for you all to keep an closer eye on the Odem st bar screen,” he wrote. “It faulted over the weekend and caused us to have a spill out of the primary structure. I want for the operators to visually inspect the screen daily during your Odem st operations time. And to check the SCADA display to see if the screen is actually running during the times when Odem is unmanned.”
SCADA is a term for supervisory control and data acquisition, which is used on industrial equipment to control processes from internal or remote locations and manage that equipment.
Investigation of the September spill determined a backup power supply’s battery had failed and needed to be replaced. It was ordered in September but hadn’t arrived by early December. This part didn’t affect the November spill, Garza said, because a portable backup power supply was put in place until the permanent backup arrived.
”I have found the UPS has a faulty battery that was causing the unit to shut down every time we would any sort of outage or power bumps,” electrician and instrument technician Jonathon Nguyen wrote to Davis after the September spill. “When the UPS turns off, the panelview and the control relay module also turns off, unable to send any kind of fault to the SCADA.”
He said he modified the system so it would notify operators moving forward.
Garza said the November spill points to major changes and improvements in the works that would address the overall problem and its causes in a “big-picture” way.
He said the city has 17 wastewater lift stations to pump the effluent to a treatment plant. He said none of those lift stations have backup generators, so the city must use portable generators as the need arises. Further, the system is rife with old systems and technology to the point the city’s two wastewater treatment plants cannot be staffed by the same people because equipment on older and newer plants operate differently and use different SCADA systems.
In addition, the SCADA systems in place are over 20 years old, he said, and due for upgrades.
“It makes it very difficult to monitor,” he said.
Within hours of the November spill being discovered and stopped, city officials emailed back and forth, discussing what happened and how to report it to the state and the public.
They decided, at the direction of Garza, to take a minimalist approach to notifications — to tell only those they’re required to tell, because the spill impacted so few people, mainly workers at the facility.
Garza said in a Nov. 26 email at 7:55 p.m., “I don’t want to bring panic to anybody when this doesn’t really impact anybody. What is the bare minimum requirement to share this information? Is it simply a press release? I prefer to not put it on social media and I doubt TCEQ requires social media posting?” Five minutes later, Gill replied in agreement.
Garza on Tuesday said he had no regrets about how the notification went out, or its timing, which was within the amount allowed by the state.
The release was sent out Nov. 27 at 2 p.m., 27½ hours after the spill.