|LAREDO, August 23 - VIPs from Austin and other parts of the country attending the 8th Annual Border Health Conference in Laredo, Texas, wanted to see for themselves Third World living conditions in a local colonia.
They got their wish in abundance. On a visit to the Rio Bravo and El Cenizo colonias just south of Laredo on Friday morning they learned that local residents have to deal with E. coli, Coliform, radioactive contaminants and inorganic contaminants coming out of the water in their faucets.
“We cannot wash our face with it. We cannot clean our teeth with it. We cannot wash our bodies with it. We cannot wash our dishes with it. If we mop we spread whatever contamination the water has,” Juan Idrogo, a community activist in El Cenizo, told the VIPs.
“I have washed my hands. I have used soap and I have rinsed and dried my hands. If I shake the hands of you guys, am I passing a disease on to you?” Idrogo asked the VIPs.
Idrogo said the colonia residents held a meeting last Monday and agreed to file a lawsuit against Webb County. “We are not seeking money. We want this issue resolved. We want it fixed. We are trying to give them (the county) time, we are giving them 60 days.”
Idrogo urged the VIPs to take the story of the contaminated water back to Austin. “God told me to go to Rio Bravo and buy a paper. That is how I knew you guys were coming in. Please tell people about this. We feel abandoned. Rio Bravo feels abandoned.”
The VIPs first heard about the contaminated water from the drivers of the three buses taking them to the colonias. They were warned to only drink bottled water, noting out of the tap.
Asked how bad the situation is, Webb County Commissioner Mike Montemayor told the VIPs it was “very, very” serious.
“It is a problem that has been going on for years. My fellow county commissioner, John Galo and I walked the water plant and we saw some very serious issues. We knew something was going to happen. We just did not know when. We recommended to the new engineer that he start ordering new parts. He started working on replacing the filters and other systems. In fact, in about three minutes I am supposed to meet with TCEQ,” Montemayor said.
“We really cannot say much about what is going on in the water. I have made a recommendation that we hire a contractor from the outside to run the water plant the way it should be run instead of the way it has been run.”
Asked what recommendation he would give the colonia residents, Montemayor said: “They must continue to boil water until we get the green light from TCEQ. The residents should not have to go through this. Nobody should have to go through this. People can get really sick with this.”
Emmanuel Rodriguez, assistant public information officer for Webb County, said the systems water plant manager for the county, John Amaya, had tendered his resignation on Wednesday.
Texas Environmental Quality Commission press officer Lisa Wheeler said her agency is working with Webb County to ensure clean and safe water reaches colonia residents. “I can tell you the County is still operating the system and it is still under investigation regarding the issues going on there and the boiled water notice is still in effect,” Wheeler told the Guardian.
The person who first called TCEQ into El Cenizo is Karla Tamez, a community activist and president of the United Citizens Committee. Tamez told the Guardian how she became suspicious that all was not well with the water supply.
“The information was buried in a Webb County report. They have to produce an annual report on water quality. They never sent this report to us. I found it hidden in a corner at our community center about a month ago. The report said our water has radioactive contaminants and inorganic contaminants. I was really worried because they never reported this to anybody here in the community,” Tamez said.
Tamez said she immediately contacted TCEQ and the EPA to ask for help. “I asked them to come to my house and take samples of the water and that is when they found E. coli and Coliform. But, they took three to four days to tell the public.”
In her message to the VIPs, Tamez said there have been a lot of colonia residents hospitalized because of the contaminated water. “It took the County and TCEQ a long time before they reported it to the media. On Aug. 6 they took samples. The next day they had preliminary results that the water had and Coliform. They did not say anything until the 9th of August. All of that time people were drinking that water.”
Tamez added that the people of Laredo are showing great generosity in sending bottled water but the supplies are insufficient.
Jaime Arizpe, regional coordinator of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in Laredo, said the VIPs were shocked to learn how bad things are in the Rio Bravo and El Cenizo colonias.
“I think they saw that Third World conditions are still in place even in 2013. It is very unfortunate,” Arizpe said. “I know Commissioner Montemayor is trying to get the issue resolved. He has only been in office seven months and this has been going on for three or four years. People are very upset and understandably so.”