Safety of Houston drinking water causing growing concern

High levels of cancer-causing chemical found in city's drinking water

By Debbie Strauss - Special Projects Producer , Haley Hernandez - Health Reporter

HOUSTON - The safety of drinking water is causing growing concern in Houston's neighborhoods after a series of Channel 2 investigations.

In November, we exposed high levels of a cancer-causing chemical -- chromium 6 -- in the city's drinking water.

"The city of Houston's water ranks third in the country in terms of high levels of chromium 6," said Bill Walker, managing editor at the Environmental Working Group.

Chromium 6 is the chemical made infamous by the movie Erin Brockovich.

INTERACTIVE MAP: View counties/cities containing where chromium 6 has been detected

In Houston, Alief is ground zero. Now, angry residents are confronting the city.

In the last couple of months, the city has been hosting capital improvement project meetings. The meetings are meant to address items like drainage concerns and park projects.

But annoyed residents like Pamela Boneta decided to let the city know what they think about chromium 6.

"It's a level that can make people get cancer and all other kinds of illnesses," Boneta said.

"Ma'am, our drinking water is safe," Carol Haddock, with Public Works, said. "I want everybody in this room to hear and understand that our drinking water is safe."

Boneta replied, "Legally it's safe, but ethically it is not safe, and people are going to die from it."

Barbara Quattro, president of the Alief Super Neighborhood, also spoke at the CIP meeting.

"There are four groundwater wells. We want each one of those wells tested to find the source," she said.

Now, Channel 2 Investigates is getting action.

Council member Steve Le, who was at the CIP meeting, is promising change.

"We've instructed our water department to see what the cause is to study specifically for chromium 6 in that water reservoir," Le said.

He's met with Public Works and asked officials to test different levels of the aquifer.

"Looking at the depth of the study, comparing surface water to middle water, deeper water, and seeing if there's any difference in the chromium 6 between those levels," Le said. "Maybe we can alter the way (we) can tap this water to make sure there's less chromium 6 coming into the supply."

Le will also ask the state Health Department to study any cancer clusters in the area.

"Anything studying the environment has to come from the state," he said. "It's not actually a local situation. That's the reason why we want to reach out to the state first to see if they'll help us in studying an environmental issue that could be impact(ing) pretty much all of Texas. It may have been more prominently locally, but this could be more widespread in the state of Texas.

Channel 2's health reporter, Haley Hernandez, asked Le, "If you're willing to do that, then you're willing to admit there's a valid concern for residents in your area?"

"I've always admitted that," Le said. "The thing is, I want to look at the science behind that, though. So to me, chromium 6 has been shown to cause cancer. The question is, what is the level?"

Just how bad is the water in Alief?

In California, health agencies said cancer rates start to rise at a concentration of 0.02 parts per billion(ppb).

According to city water tests, rates of chromium 6 in Alief were as high as 6.7 ppb.

Right now, the EPA doesn't regulate chromium 6, just total chromium.

After our first story, Congressman Al Green asked the EPA to investigate what's happening in Alief.

"We are close to something, in my opinion," Green said. "It's similar to what the tobacco industry was experiencing when they were in denial about a carcinogen."

Green said he wants a congressional hearing.

We reached out to the Houston Public Work's Department. The office has met with the Super Neighborhood's president and council members.

The director would not sit down for an interview for this story, but a spokesperson wrote, "The city's drinking water currently meets or exceeds all federal and state standards and is safe."

Q: What is the Public Works department doing to address residents’ specific inquiries made at the CIP meetings?
A: Public Works & Engineering (PWE) has met with the Super Neighborhoods president for the area, council members and attended meetings in the community to understand residents’ specific inquires. Our department has given detailed information to Channel 2 on chromium 6, posted information in multiple languages to the city of Houston’s website and provided an on-camera interview with our senior assistant director of drinking water operations. The facts on our water quality have not changed.

Q: Residents asked for continued testing of chromium 6, not just total chromium. When will the city test again for chromium 6?
A:The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) mandates testing for total chromium. The TCEQ establishes the timing of the tests and pulls the samples, which they split with us. Currently, we are required to monitor for total chromium at entry points (where treated water enters the distribution system) annually for surface water plants and every three years for groundwater plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and TCEQ have not established a standard for chromium 6 and we do not test for it separate from our testing for total chromium levels. However, it is important to note the results of our testing showed the levels for total chromium are below the enforceable level established by the state of California for chromium 6 of 10 parts per billion. We are in compliance with the current EPA and TCEQ standards. We continue to be actively engaged in discussions with our water supply colleagues, the TCEQ and EPA. If changes are required by regulation, we will respond accordingly.

Q: Citizens also requested testing of the aquifer. When will that happen?
A: The city’s drinking water is in compliance with EPA and TCEQ standards for total chromium, which includes chromium 3 and chromium 6. Therefore, we don’t plan to sample the aquifer.

Q: Citizens asked the city to exceed EPA standards. Will you do that? Why or why not?
A: The city’s drinking water currently meets or exceeds all federal and state standards and is safe. Information on the city of Houston’s water quality, including current and prior years Consumer Confidence Reports, can be found at: www.publicworks.houstontx.gov/pud/consumer-confidence.html.

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