Energy & Environment

Small Texas Communities, Big Arsenic Risk in Drinking Water Says Environmental Group

Potentially harmful levels of arsenic are in public drinking water systems scattered across Texas including in some small systems in the Houston area according to state data analyzed by a public interest group.

Arsenic-Report-8
Average arsenic levels in community water systems in 2014-2015.

Citing how the scandal in Flint Michigan shows the importance of safe drinking water, a national group says state officials should be telling some Texans “‘don’t drink the water” because of worrisome levels of arsenic.

“We’re concerned that Texas doesn’t provide that warning even when the arsenic concentrations are very high, far above the standard and they persist for a decade or longer,” says the director of the Environmental Integrity Project, Eric Schaeffer.

“These are small systems. They tend to be in lower income areas just looking at the demographics. Sometimes in areas with pretty high Latino populations,” Schaeffer said on a conference call with reporters.

Schaeffer said they found over 80,000 Texans are served by a total of 65 of those small water systems that have arsenic levels higher than the federal limit. Most of the systems had about double the level considered safe but a few had levels more than five times higher. But even at the supposed safe level there’s a risk to kids according to group’s research analyst, Courtney Bernhardt: “Research has suggested that much lower levels of arsenic can cause loss of IQ in children.”

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) says all but two of the 65 water systems cited by the report have been targets of enforcement actions by state regulators or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What’s more, the TCEQ says the state helps low income communities find funding to pay for purification systems.

In an emailed response to Houston Public Media, the TCEQ said in part: “TCEQ follows EPA guidelines in arsenic notifications, including using the exact language in the letters as suggested by EPA, as well as using EPA drinking water standards, sampling methods, and analytical methods. The potential danger of arsenic intake is very specifically detailed in the notification letters.”

In general, the TCEQ said, “Texas arsenic drinking water levels are not an immediate health threat.”

Arsenic is naturally occurring in groundwater in Texas. Many communities have some level in their public drinking water including Houston and its suburbs. The maximum level in Houston was 4.4 parts per billion (ppb) according to a report by the City of Houston. The amount considered safe by federal standards is 10 ppb.

Arsenic Concentrations Found in Houston Area Public Water Systems

Water System County Pop.
Served
Boudreaux Gardens Harris 123
Matagorda County Water Control & Improvement Dist. 2 Matagorda 471
Cotton Bayou Park Chambers 114
City of Danbury Brazoria 2,325
Village of Surfside Beach* Brazoria 3,477
City of Liverpool* Brazoria 619
Hackberry Creek Subdivision Chambers 165

Source: Environmental Integrity Project, table 1. Average Arsenic Concentrations in 65 Texas Community Public Water Systems. See report, page 3, for a complete list of 65 Texas community water systems.

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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