As Toyah residents lived under a boil water notice, state regulators hesitated to act

Even though state inspectors have documented significant problems with Toyah’s water system, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality took years to respond.

By Mitch Borden, Marfa Public RadioMarch 31, 2023 8:58 am, ,

From Marfa Public Radio:

This story was reported and produced in collaboration with Martha Pskowski, a reporter at Inside Climate News. This is the final story in a three-part series on the town of Toyah and the water issues that have plagued the community for years. Click here to hear the first and second stories.

It’s still dark outside when Angel Machuca opens the door for students from the University of Texas at Austin’s environmental clinic. They’re at her mom and dad’s house in Toyah to collect water samples.

“It’s exciting that they are going to test our water,” Machuca said, clearly worn by the boil water notice she and the nearly 100 other residents in Toyah have lived under for the last five years.

In that time, the small town — just off I-20 in West Texas — has split into two camps: those who don’t believe the water’s safe and those who do, which includes local leaders who continue to claim the water is fine despite reports of rashes, bacterial infections and noticeably dirty water coming out of taps. And all of that is part of why these students are here.

On the list of things they’re measuring for is lead, copper, legionella and turbidity, or the clarity of the water. Samples are collected from the kitchen sink and the shower. Today the water looks clear, but that doesn’t mean it’s clean.

The community has a record of failing to meet drinking water standards. To this day, there’s evidence that the city struggles to properly clean its water and that residents have been exposed to excessive amounts of trihalomethanes, chemicals produced by sanitizing water with chlorine.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure to high levels of these chemicals can increase the risk of cancer and cause kidney, liver and nervous system problems.

“You wonder, am I going to die in the next two years – not from a car accident – but am I gonna die because of the contamination of the water, is that my fate?” Machuca said.

The environmental clinic’s part of UT’s law school where students advocate for underserved communities, like Toyah. It’s all done under Kelly Haragan’s supervision. She directs the clinic and is an attorney that specializes in environmental law.

Her assessment of the water is blunt: “People should not be drinking the water in Toyah.”

Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

A decrepit sign greets visitors at Toyah's water treatment plant.

Her reasoning spans health concerns, a history of water contamination to unqualified staff running the city’s water treatment plant.

She said, “I think people are entitled to a lot more than just gambling that the water looks ok and drinking it.”

Haragan’s team found that in the last decade the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, has reported 400 violations and launched multiple investigations into Toyah’s water system, but the agency was slow to respond.

“I think the TCEQ thought, ‘We want to help them but we aren’t going to come down on them.” She continued, “The reality is they needed to come down on them because the city wasn’t going to resolve it.”

The TCEQ didn’t provide comment for this story, but looking back at their past meetings you can see this play out. In 2021, Ed Puckett, a volunteer at the city’s water treatment plant, called in to give the TCEQ commissioners an update.

Puckett said, “The plant is being turned on later today for the first time in three years. We have spent every dime Toyah had available on the water plant.”

At this time, the facility’s water filtration unit had been shut down for years forcing the community to use an illegal filter. And despite the city receiving a $200,000 grant for repairs and improvements, the plant still had major problems.

According to Puckett, the small town couldn’t keep up with state penalties. “This town has 30 connections. There’s no way we can afford to pay any kind of fines when the money needs to go to the repairs at the plant,” he said.

Commissioner Jon Niermann was sympathetic to Puckett and told other commissioners that it’s incredibly hard for small water systems to support themselves and meet state requirements.

“Let me not say that it’s impossible, let me just say – because I’m an optimist – it is very very challenging,” Niermann explained.

So TCEQ cut Toyah some slack.

Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

(From left to right) Angel Machuca, her father Jesse Sanchez, Kelly Haragan and Matthew Frankel watch a turbidity meter measure water clarity.

“I think I want to give this city an opportunity to prove it up. It sounds like they are right on the cusp.” He continued, “They’ve got water samples, they are turning it on today…, [let’s] see how it goes.”

But by late 2022, about a year after this meeting, the state would file a lawsuit to take over Toyah’s water system. Court documents detail continued mismanagement which could place Toyah residents in danger. However, at this time, the city is still in control of its water system.

Haragan believes the state should have taken Toyah to court sooner — but there’s a bigger question on her mind right now.

“Whoever is making those decisions is still going to have to figure out what the long-term solution is,” she said. “They’ve either got to make the repairs and fix that plant, at least for the short term and probably find a longer-term solution.”

Haragan is hopeful — her team is researching things like additional funding, drilling groundwater wells or hooking Toyah up to a better-run system. All of those options would need local officials to cooperate.

According to her though, “It seems like they want to keep tight control of [the water treatment] plant. And I don’t, I don’t really understand why.”

But, she’s adamant something has to be done.

“The town is dying and it’s not surprising because if you don’t have good drinking water people aren’t going to stay — but in this case, I think we could fix it,” she said.

After gathering up their samples, Haragan and her team head out. But they left behind testing supplies so Angel Machuca’s father, Jesse Sanchez, and the rest of their family can monitor the water.

“It gets to the point where you’re tired most of the day and every time you’re gonna do something you start thinking about it,” he said. “What’s in the water? What’s gonna happen, To me, my kids four years, five years from now? It runs you down.”

Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

After living under a boil water notice for years, Reeves County began distributing drinking water on a weekly basis to residents. Only a handful of locals take advantage of this service.

After years of advocating for clean drinking water, Sanchez said friends and neighbors have turned against them. Sitting by her husband, Elda Sanchez tried to explain their motivation.

She said, “You know we’re not bad people. Yeah, we want people to know not to drink it. We’re trying to help everybody else.”

Critics of their efforts discount their claims by bringing up their late son Bart Sanchez, who was the town’s mayor and water operator for years. He pleaded guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in 2013 and served time in prison for stealing approximately $100,000 from Toyah. He died in 2021 due to COVID-19 complications, according to the family.

At the Sanchez home, the water at times comes out muddy, has burned their eyes and irritated their skin. The family has been through a lot but Elda is hopeful that “When the water gets fixed and everything gets normal again, I think that’s when we’ll start healing.”

The results from the environmental clinic’s testing eventually came back, and nothing major was found that day. Still, Haragan said the findings did show that the boil water notice needs to be taken seriously.

She explained, “It doesn’t mean that at every single moment, there’s something coming out of their tap that is unsafe. It just means there’s no quality assurance.”

For Jesse, he said he won’t trust the local water until the state lifts the boil water notice and dependable, trustworthy people are running the plant. “

“I want this to be over, I don’t know how much longer this is going to last. Hopefully not for another year. I want to take a good shower,” he said.

It’s hard to say when that will be possible. The state’s case against Toyah is ongoing. And reports of dirty water continue to flow in, leaving residents in the small desert town to decide, day after day if they’re willing to risk drinking or bathing in the water.

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