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On March 27, 1998, the chlorine gas cylinder at the Northeast water plant on Staple Street needed to be changed. Although a common procedure, the task requires knowledge and care -- chlorine is a highly toxic chemical that can cause permanent respiratory damage and other serious health problems if inhaled.
Ruben Slater, a city water employee, unhooked the old cylinder and connected the new one. But something went awry, and the cylinder leaked. Slater sucked gas and fell to the ground, gasping for air. "I could hardly breathe," he recalls, clenching his fists. "I thought, if I stay here, I'm gonna die."
Slater managed to crawl to his truck and radio for help. He spent three days at Hermann Hospital, then had to be readmitted when his condition deteriorated. It was two months before he could return to work; more than a year later, he continues to suffer from the effects of his injury and must take a host of medications to control his symptoms, which include periodic asthma attacks and high blood pressure. "My lungs and liver are still giving me the blues," he says with a noticeable wheeze.
Accidents happen, but in Slater's case, it shouldn't have. A maintenance mechanic whose primary job was to fix pumps and motors, he'd never changed a chlorine cylinder before. And although his bosses later stated he'd been doing his regular job and was properly trained, that training had consisted of a single session conducted by his supervisor eight months earlier. According to Slater and another employee there for the training, the supervisor botched the procedure and vented poisonous gas.
Federal regulations require the Northeast plant to have a safety shower; in case of chemical exposures such as Slater's, immediate flushing with water can reduce the severity of the injury. But the plant had no shower, and it doesn't today. In fact, dozens of the city's water plants lack that basic safety feature.
The Water Production Branch has a safety team that is supposed to inspect facilities and note violations. But city records indicate those audits are done only sporadically and only at certain plants. And when they do make inspections, problems often take months to correct, if they're corrected at all.
Water Production chief Roger Hulbert says that safety is of primary importance and that his staff responds to worker concerns. "If there's any corrective action that needs to be taken, it's done," Hulbert says.
But Slater, whose encounter with chlorine has made him particularly sensitive about safety issues, dismisses Hulbert's remark as pure gas. "My impression is that they do not have any concern about the safety of the employees," Slater says.
Flawed safety standards are alarming, especially given that Water Production workers have sustained more than 30 lost-time injuries the past three years (though some were likely caused by employee carelessness and had nothing to do with bureaucratic negligence).
But worker safety isn't the only area in which the plants are deficient. A Houston Press investigation found dozens of state and federal violations at various plants. These include fuel tanks with no containment areas to control spills; unlocked barriers which are supposed to prevent people from climbing tanks and contaminating the water supply; protective equipment either missing or in disarray; inoperative emergency generating systems to provide water during blackouts; hazardous materials left unsecured.
The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission inspects the city's water system every year to ensure compliance with laws. But the inspections are less than rigorous: Despite obvious violations visible from outside plant gates, the TNRCC somehow found no violations during its 1999 survey. In previous years inspectors found "alleged noncompliances," but wrote in their report that all had been resolved. "The state inspection is a farce," says a longtime city plant operator.
The Press also learned that in an effort to streamline operations and keep costs low, the Water Production Branch has slashed the workforce, scrimped on training, deferred maintenance and reduced the level of chemical treatment. While this may please the budget cutters, it may not do much for what comes out of the tap -- customer complaints about water quality increased 25 percent the past fiscal year.
Moreover, Water Production managers have been allowing unlicensed operators to run water plants for more than a year. Results have been decidedly mixed: On August 14, an unlicensed operator at the East Water Purification surface-water complex on Federal Road forgot to turn off a pump, causing a 1,000-gallon caustic soda spill. Some of the chemical flowed into Hunting Bayou; the Coast Guard and state Parks and Wildlife officials had to be called onto the scene.
Roger Hulbert denies that the use of unlicensed operators has contravened the rules. Besides, he says, anybody can make mistakes. "I think there will be intermittent problems with human error whether it's a licensed operator or not," Hulbert says.
And while Hulbert acknowledges that the department has been undergoing downsizing (which he prefers to call "optimization"), he insists that nothing is lost in the translation. "Our goal is that in the optimization process, safety is never compromised, no rules are ever broken," he says.
But those inside the plants say that notion is, at best, wishful thinking. They find the use of untrained and unqualified personnel inexcusable -- especially since the city employs licensed operators who are doing unrelated work. "It's bad," says David DeFord, a 15-year Water Production operator who was recently transferred from the Federal Road complex. "You're looking for an accident to happen."