When the schools superintendent in Crystal City, Texas, saw the murky, strange-smelling water coming out of her sister’s faucet last week, she knew this was another problem she’d have to deal with on her own.
“Right now, there’s not really anyone in charge to oversee and to make people aware of the condition of the water,” Imelda Allen told KSAT.
That’s because all but one top official in her city of 7,500, about 130 miles southwest of San Antonio, is facing some kind of criminal charge. The mayor, mayor pro tempore, a council member and the city manager were arrested this month on sweeping bribery and conspiracy charges. And another member of the city council is in a federal detention center after he admitted to smuggling undocumented immigrants across the border.
As of Wednesday, when the water started changing color, all of the charged officials were facing a recall, and the mayor, Ricardo Lopez, had just been arrested for a second time for disorderly conduct during the first city council meeting since his indictment. Even worse, authorities found what appeared to be a Vicodin pill in Lopez’s possession when he was booked at the Zavala County jail the previous evening, KSAT reported. It is illegal to have a prohibited controlled substance at a penal facility, making this Lopez’s second felony charge in less than a month.
Allen knew all this as she watched the sludgy black substance that her neighbors have compared to crude oil stream into a pitcher in her sister’s sink.
So she went ahead and did what she had to do: ordered hand sanitizer and bottled water for the district schools, trucked in huge 5-gallon jugs to provide in cafeterias.
“I wasn’t going to wait for anyone to call me from City Hall,” she told KSAT. “I know that leadership is not present at the time.”
The next day, the city finally put out a statement about the source of the black water: its elevated tank was drained on Wednesday, causing sediments and deposits that had accumulated at the bottom of the tank to stream out into distribution lines.
“It looked like black sludge. They were comparing it to oil – that dark,” resident Nora Flores-Guerrero told KSAT.
The city government said on its Facebook page that the draining was part of a long-overdue renovation of the city’s water tank, and that it hadn’t anticipated the sludgy fallout. But that didn’t comfort residents who wanted to know what was happening to their water, and why they hadn’t been warned about the draining sooner.
“We didn’t get a proper warning,” Flores-Guerrero said. “They didn’t post anything or send out any type of message to warn the residents. It was pretty scary.”
By Friday, truckloads of bottled water were being distributed to residents, and the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ) had sent a team of investigators to test for toxins and bacteria. The state environmental regulator warned residents to boil tap water before drinking, and not to drink anything that was discolored, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
There have been conflicting reports about whether or not the water is now safe to drink. KSAT reported Sunday that that the TCEQ’s tests had come back negative.
But TCEQ media relations manager Andrea Morrow told CNN that’s not quite accurate.
“While the most recent samples testing for water pressure, chlorination, and bacteria have come back in the acceptable range, we would like to wait until we have the complete suite of sample results back until we can give the all-clear,” she said. “We may have these as soon as Tuesday. In the meantime, we would still urge residents not to drink discolored water, and to boil city water before drinking it.”
Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency announced Friday that Crystal City Independent School District is at risk of losing its accreditation after it failed to meet standards for the third year running. If it finishes another year below standards, the state will no longer recognize or fund the district, the Express-News said.
And on top of all that, the mayor finally quit on Friday.
“I would like to inform you that this is my resignation letter,” read a message from Lopez obtained by local TV station KENS. “I am leaving my position of mayor of Crystal City, TX effective immediately.”
The onslaught of bad news left residents reeling.
“I feel bad talking about the little town where I grew up, but this is ridiculous,” Alicia Martinez, 53, told the Express-News. “We need help to get it back to where it used to be.”
The city government’s Facebook page became a sounding board for citizens’ frustrations.
“You all completely dropped the ball by not notifying the people of Crystal City!” one person commented, questioning why news of the black water got around on social media before the municipal government said anything.
“Scumbags,” wrote another, mincing no words.
“We apologize for the burden this issue has caused,” the city government’s Facebook account replied to an angry commenter. “We are currently going through administrative challenges that minimize our coordination on certain levels.”
“Administrative challenges” is putting it lightly. After the mayor’s resignation and the suspension of city manager James Jonas (one of the officials facing bribery and conspiracy charges) earlier last week, the lone unindicted council member Joel Barajas – whose position is really just volunteer job – found himself suddenly responsible for all the city’s day to day operations.
It’s not clear what will happen next to the Texas city, which calls itself the “Spinach Capital of the World.” If the recall elections are successful, the council won’t have the quorum necessary to hold meetings, let alone carry out essential tasks, like passing a budget, the Texas Tribune reported.
“I often say I’ve seen it all,” attorney Buck Wood told the newspaper after successfully arguing for the recalls this month. The Austin-based lawyer has spent 45 years working on cases related to ethics, school finance, election law and all manner of government dysfunction.
But what’s happening in Crystal City is in a league of its own, he said: “I haven’t seen anything close to it.”