The City of Houston has terminated its contract with the longtime operator of its wastewater treatment plants in the Kingwood area amid an ongoing criminal investigation into inadequately treated sewage being released from one of the facilities into a public waterway.
Houston Public Works announced last week it will take over operations of the Kingwood Central Wastewater Treatment Plant and four others managed by Inframark, LLC – along with five drinking water supply facilities in the Kingwood area that have been operated by the company – effective this Friday. The city owns about 40 other wastewater treatment plants and operates all of them, according to Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones.
The city's utility department previously said it found that inadequately treated sewage had been released from the Kingwood Central facility into Bens Branch, a waterway that feeds into Lake Houston, which is one of the city's drinking water sources. But Jones said drinking water in the Kingwood area and throughout the city has remained safe for consumption, because the water from Lake Houston is subsequently treated elsewhere before entering the municipal water supply.
Houston police executed a search warrant Feb. 17 at the facility, 3928 Kingwood Dr., with a detective alleging in the warrant that there had been "unauthorized and illegal discharges of pollutants" from the plant and that wastewater sample reports submitted to the city and eventually the state of Texas had been "forged or otherwise tampered with" in an attempt to conceal the discharges. Houston Police Department spokesperson Jodi Silva said Monday the investigation is ongoing and that no arrests had been made and no criminal charges had been filed.
"Over the past two months, it became apparent that Inframark is in breach of its contract with the City of Houston to run the Greater North East Houston Service Area system, which includes the Kingwood Central Wastewater Treatment Facility," Houston Public Works said in a news release. "The city has determined that it can best serve Kingwood residents by having Houston Public Works operate its water treatment facilities in Kingwood, just as Houston Public Works safely and efficiently operates water treatment facilities every day throughout the City of Houston."
Jones said the latest service contract between the city and Inframark, which for years has operated the Kingwood-area facilities, was a five-year, $74 million agreement that began in August 2021.
Inframark has enlisted a company called Busby Environmental Services to collect and submit test samples from the Kingwood plant, which are then analyzed by Envirodyne Laboratories, according to the February search warrant.
Tampering with government documents is a felony, as is discharging waste into a public waterway that causes or threatens to cause water pollution.
Miranda Sevcik, a spokesperson for Inframark, said the company is nearing the completion of an internal investigation and has "found no evidence of any illegal activity on the part of any Inframark employees."
"Over the last five years, since Hurricane Harvey, we have repeatedly asked the City of Houston to address the serious deficiencies in the condition of the equipment at the Kingwood Central Wastewater Treatment Facility, and until recently the city has slow-walked every request," Sevcik added. "The fact that the city has moved to terminate us as long overdue upgrades are finally being made is both a surprise and a disappointment."
The city began investigating operations at the plant in late January, after receiving complaints from residents about odors coming from the facility. Houston Public Works senior assistant director Greg Eyerly visited the plant Jan. 31 and found it was not functioning properly because of the appearance of dark, cloudy water in aeration and clarifying tanks as well as sludge spilled on the ground, he told HPD Sgt. Patrick Morrissey, according to the search warrant affidavit.
What Eyerly witnessed contradicted lab sample reports that suggested the plant was operating at peak efficiency, he told Morrissey. City field investigator Jeffery Farrell visited the plant Feb. 1 and collected a discharge sample that showed its content of E.coli bacteria to be greater than 24,200 parts per 100 milliliters, compared to a content number of 135 from a purported sample taken a day earlier. The legally allowable daily average is 126 parts per 100 milliliters, with a daily maximum of 399, according to the search warrant.
Farrell also reported Feb. 2 that the plant’s automatic sampler was not properly programmed and had a frozen temperature gauge, meaning it could not take samples. However, it was later determined that a lab sample had been submitted for that day, the affidavit shows.