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State's Role in Unhealthy Water Probed

State environmental regulators should have done more to protect the safety of drinking water for two small border communities in Webb County, defense lawyers argued Thursday in the criminal trial for two former water treatment plant employees.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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LAREDO — The state of Texas should have done more to protect the safety of drinking water for two small border communities in Webb County, defense lawyers argued Thursday in the criminal trial for two former water treatment plant employees.

Former Webb County employees Johnny Amaya and Luis Camacho are accused of lying about quality of drinking water treated at the Rio Bravo Water Treatment Plant, which serves the neighboring towns of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo. Dangerous levels of e. coli bacteria were discovered at the plant in August 2013, forcing 8,000 people to boil their tap water for weeks. 

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

The trial is a result of a criminal investigation that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and later the Texas Rangers, began in 2013. The probes led to felony indictments last fall against eight current and former water plant workers for allegedly tampering with government data and engaging in organized criminal activity. Prosecutors say Amaya and Camacho were the architects of the scheme to cover up reports of unsafe drinking water; the remaining six people indicted may go on trial later this year.

But defense lawyers say Amaya and Camacho are innocent, and that the TCEQ is responsible for what happened in Rio Bravo and El Cenizo. They argued the TCEQ knew about the water plant's problems years before its 2013 investigation, and should have either shut the plant down or issued a boil water notice much sooner. 

“Why wasn’t this done before? Or why was only a boiling water [notice] done?” Camacho's lawyer Armando Trevino asked TCEQ investigator Elsa Hull, who testified as a witness at the trial. "Is it because you think Mexican Americans have a higher tolerance" for dirty water? 

Flustered, Hull said the TCEQ usually does not have the power to shut down water plants and that the operators were responsible for making sure things were working properly. At the time of the boil water notice, Amaya was water utilities director for Webb County, and Camacho was supervisor of the water plant.

"There were licensed people, and there were people who had the training that should’ve known better," she said.

Hull described being "in shock" when she visited the plant unannounced in August 2013, after more than a dozen people complained of dirty, smelly tap water that was making them sick. Almost all of the key pieces of equipment at the plant — filters, testing materials, disinfection pumps — were working properly, and the operators there didn't give her any answers, she told prosecutors.

When Hull tested the water herself, she measured a high level of turbidity and found a "zero" measurement of the required disinfectant chemicals in the water. She confronted Amaya, but "he kind of just nodded and didn’t really say much of anything that I remember," and then walked away, she testified. "I didn’t see him again after that.” Amaya quit his job a few days after the boil water notice was issued. 

Fausto Sosa, Amaya's lawyer, countered that important equipment at the plant still was not working today, even though Amaya no longer works there. "And by no stretch of the imagination is that Mr. Amaya's problem," he said, arguing that TCEQ and Webb County officials are responsible. 

Defense lawyers also took issue with the testimony of Amaya and Camacho's former co-worker Jose Vasquez, who still works as an operator at the plant and has been indicted on similar charges. Vasquez admitted to lying about water quality on his operator logs, but said he only did "so I wouldn't get in trouble."  

Trevino countered that Vasquez has "an incentive to lie" because he is also facing the same charges but will be tried later. If he admits he's guilty and implicates Camacho and Amaya, Vasquez could get a lighter sentence himself, Trevino said. 

"You did this of your own volition. Did you know that you were wrong in doing this?” Trevino asked Vasquez. “I didn’t know that it was wrong until now," he responded. 

Gabino Cerda, another former worker who has also been indicted, testified that Camacho asked him to sign monthly reports with false turbidity numbers. "He took [the report] to my office, he asked if I could sign it. I told him no," Cerda said. Then Amaya pressed him into signing it. "[Amaya] told me, 'No no, go ahead and sign it. Just make sure the turbidity levels are low and they are within the limits,' " Cerda recalled in his testimony. 

The report was for June 2013, two months before the discovery of e. coli bacteria in the drinking water. 

“I want to tell the truth," said Cerda. "I think if anybody knows it, it’s me.”

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