By Chad Swiatecki
The city has completed its investigation into the cause of an early February boil-water notice and concluded that staff at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant failed to take actions to address escalating equipment problems on an overnight shift.
Through a combination of incorrect actions, misinterpreting data and alerts linked to water quality, and not communicating issues to Austin Water leadership, the three-person team managing the plant from the evening of Feb. 4 through the morning of Feb. 5 caused the turbidity (or cloudiness) of city water to increase far past safe levels.
Once managers for the utility became aware of the growing crisis shortly after 7 a.m. on Feb. 5, the plant was shut down within two hours, causing a boil-water notice to be issued that evening which stayed in effect for much of the next week. It was the utility’s third boil-water notice since late 2018.
The report substantiated the allegations made against the overnight staffers, known as the “Orange Team”: overlooking or disregarding alerts and lab results on water quality problems, and failing to notify those higher in the chain of command. The Orange Team members were lead technician Jason Perez, assistant technician Benjamin Petrush and associate technician Joseph Dooley.
Problems at the plant began earlier in the week when only two of the plant’s four centrifuges were in operation, at decreased capacity because of deterioration. Preparation for expected freezing conditions had disrupted normal operations for the utility, though a third centrifuge was brought online on Feb. 2 and processes to remove solids in the Colorado River water that create cloudiness were running as planned.
On the morning of Feb. 4, the repaired centrifuge began showing performance issues again and assemblies feeding lime into a pair of basins had frozen, with increased workload shifted to two other basins that were functioning normally. Work to address these issues continued into the evening hours, with all four basins eventually brought online, though the No. 4 centrifuge was still not operating.
As is standard at the utility, the incoming Orange night shift team was made aware electronically and in paper reports of the maintenance issues earlier in the day. Around 9:30 p.m. turbidity levels in one of the problematic basins began to climb, though no issues were reported during a 10:22 p.m. check-in call from a division manager.
By 2:30 a.m., turbidity levels in the basin climbed to levels beyond the monitoring capabilities of the plant’s equipment. By 4 a.m., filters began failing because of turbidity levels that were five times maximum regulatory limits, with no steps to address those problems taken until shift changeover at 7 a.m. on Feb. 5.
Perez, as the senior member of the team with 10 years of service at the plant, was found to have overlooked or misinterpreted signs of cascading problems with the equipment, despite receiving notification via the “pass down” that occurs from one team to the next.
Once Perez became aware of turbidity problems via sample tests taken around 10 p.m., he presumed they were due to a possible line break – with no acknowledgment of the maintenance issues earlier in the day – and directed the other members of the crew to try to locate the source of the problem, which took a combined three hours of work time. Looking for the nonexistent line break was the only corrective action the team took related to the turbidity issues.
As part of the fallout from the four-day disruption to the city’s water customers, longtime Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros offered his resignation to the city.
The findings of the report are the main agenda item for Thursday’s meeting of City Council’s Austin Water Oversight Committee.
Austin police have charged Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, a local cyclist, for the murder of Moriah "Mo" Wilson.
Wilson, a rising star in the gravel and mountain bike community, was found dead with gunshot wounds inside an East Austin home on the night of May 11 when she was in town for the weekend Gravel Locos race in Hico, Texas.
Police believe Wilson was having a relationship with a man Armstrong was also in a relationship with. The man, another gravel cyclist, Colin Strickland, has since issued a statement on the murder.
In his statement, he said he had a brief romantic relationship with Wilson in October 2021 before he resumed his relationship with Armstrong, but that he remained friends with Wilson. "There is no way to adequately express the regret and torture I feel about my proximity to this horrible crime. I am sorry, and I simply cannot make sense of this unfathomable tragedy.
NEW: Austin professional cyclist Colin Strickland has just released a statement about the murder of cyclist Moriah Wilson, clarifying his relationship with her and expressing “torture about my proximity to this horrible crime.” pic.twitter.com/KnIna3mWrE
— Tony Plohetski (@tplohetski) May 20, 2022
Wilson, a 25-year-old Vermont native living in Colorado, had won a slew of races becoming a fan favorite. She had just become a full-time racer this year.
Anyone with information on this crime can contact Austin police at 512-974-TIPS or contact Crime Stoppers anonymously at 512-472-8477.
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Austin has added 24-hour security to the city-owned Pecan Gardens property, which will be converted into supportive housing for people exiting homelessness, after the former hotel was found with months of damage and vandalism May 5.
The building, which was broken into and stripped of copper and had people illegally sleeping inside of it, has been secured, Kelly said in a Friday press conference. Kelly said the city confirmed a measure to implement 24-hour security, including updates every 60 days until the property opens up as supportive housing.
"We cannot let this happen to any vacant city-owned property ever again," Kelly said. "This blatant act of disregard and criminal behavior will not be tolerated in our community."
The city bought the former hotel in August 2021 for $9.5 million with plans to renovate the property into a 78-unit supportive housing property. Those 55 or older that are experiencing chronic homelessness can qualify to live at the site once it is completed in late 2022-early 2023.
While the council was set to discuss a $4 million deal with Family Eldercare to begin converting the property Thursday, Kelly pulled the item for a later executive session due to security concerns. But the council did approve an item to authorize city leaders to begin negotiating other renovation contracts.
"I want to thank my colleagues for pumping the brakes on this contract and realizing that we owe the community not only an apology, but reassurance that the protection of the assets the city owns is vital to the success of achieving our intended goals," Kelly said.
When the building was found vandalized May 5, Kelly, who presides over the district containing the property, said damage included:
- Damage spanning all three floors of the building and is in nearly every room.
- The entire hotel was stripped of copper.
- Destroyed washers, dryers, air conditioners and electrical wiring.
- People sleeping at the hotel without permission.
On Tuesday, Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Gray apologized and said there was no security due to a delay in processing the request.
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