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Trial Begins Over Undrinkable Water in Webb County

The blame game over who's responsible for the problems 8,000 border residents have with their drinking water is playing out in a Laredo court, as Webb County water treatment plant workers face charges of falsifying records to hide contamination from state regulators.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Water treatment facility in Rio Bravo, Texas.

LAREDO – Incompetence, local politics, lack of resources — all have been blamed for the foul tap water that periodically streams from the faucets of about 8,000 residents in two small border communities.

In Laredo's red brick courthouse Tuesday, prosecutors began their efforts to prove that at least part of the problem was criminal. Two former plant supervisors — Johnny Amaya, a former water utilities director and well-connected political figure in Laredo, and his former deputy Luis Camacho — went on trial for allegedly instructing workers to falsify records to hide water quality problems from state regulators.

Attorneys for the two men argued that blame for the ongoing water issues is widespread, and that their clients did nothing wrong. “They are workers. They don’t have expertise. They are told what to do,” said Armando Trevino, who represents Camacho. “Who is responsible for the plant? … Does it begin and end with them? Or does it go further?”

But a Webb County assistant district attorney argued otherwise. “This is a case about a cover-up,” said Ricardo Guerra. “This is a case about dirty, cloudy water. … Was this a case about supreme incompetence? Absolutely not.”

At the heart of the case are problems with the Rio Bravo Water Treatment Plant, explored in the Texas Tribune series Undrinkable.

For decades, residents of the two neighboring communities of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo, about 20 miles south of Laredo, complained of unsafe water coming out of their taps. When Webb County opened a brand-new $12 million water treatment plant in 2006, they hoped their troubles were over. But the plant has never worked properly, and the county is still struggling to fix it.

For years after it opened, complaints continued, and state regulators cited the plant for many problems — including what seemed to be discrepancies between the daily reports on water quality that operators would fill out, and the monthly reports that Webb County sent to the state. 

But it wasn’t until August 2013, when more than a dozen complaints from area residents led to a discovery of E. coli in their drinking water, that the problem became a countywide political one. Residents of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo were told to boil their water for weeks to be sure it was safe. The Texas Rangers soon got involved.

The Rangers’ investigation led to felony indictments last fall of several former water plant workers for allegedly tampering with government data and engaging in organized criminal activity. When tests showed that the water quality wasn’t meeting health standards, prosecutors say, Amaya and Camacho told the other workers to change the numbers to acceptable ones. 

“The falsification of the reports were deliberate,” said Guerra.  

On the witness stand, Ranger E.J. Salinas told jurors that “Amaya offered a partial confession” and admitted to telling workers they must “fix” water quality readings that showed problems. Camacho told him something similar, Salinas said.

Salinas described significant differences between operators’ daily logs — some of which left key entries blank or reported an unsafe health standard for the water — and the monthly reports to the state, which claimed the water was always safe to drink.   

Fausto Sosa, Amaya’s lawyer, said in an interview that the word “fix” was misinterpreted. “It doesn’t mean 'Fix the report,'” he said. “It means, do the work” to improve the water quality so it meets health standards.

“The whole crux of this case is he said, she said,” Sosa continued. “My client, Mr. Amaya, did not tamper or physically change anything.”

The defense argued on Tuesday that there’s no evidence of Amaya or Camacho changing water quality reports themselves, and instead blamed the county and the former lower-level employees. (The other indicted former employees will go on trial separately.) The county engineer and county commissioners, who haven’t been indicted, are the ones who were supposed to fix the plant’s problems, the defense contended.

“Why wasn’t it working? Lack of funds. But that’s not Mr. Amaya’s problem. Because he’s the fall guy here,” Sosa told the jurors. 

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