It 'smells like a dead animal.' San Angelo water complaints reveal what PaulAnn experienced

John Tufts
San Angelo Standard-Times

SAN ANGELO — On a bright but breezy Monday morning, February 8, 2021, Elena Velez-Reyes received a phone call from a concerned resident living in San Angelo's PaulAnn neighborhood. The caller complained something was wrong with their water. 

Velez-Reyes, who serves as Laboratory Manager for San Angelo's Water Quality Division, logged the complaint with the following notation: "Customer stated water smelled like chemicals."

It wasn't the only complaint Velez-Reyes and other city officials would receive during the next 24 hours concerning San Angelo's rapidly deteriorating water quality. There would be more complaints — dozens more.

City staff arrived at the resident's address in the 2800 block of Joshua Street early that same Monday, the last day of warm 80-degree weather before a record-setting and deadly winter blizzard swept across Texas.

Much like the blizzard itself, a chemical tempest was churning in San Angelo's water pipes, and the storm was about to hit.

Christopher Patterson, with the City of San Angelo Water Distribution Department, helps test water quality at a meter box near the intersection of Culwell St. and Hughes St. on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

Documents stated crews collected water samples from the Joshua Street home, in which they noted "a moth-ball like odor." Velez-Reyes finished her 10 a.m. report citing the customer was advised "to not use water to consume as of yet."

Then another call complaining about the water in PaulAnn alerted officials to Johnny Lane — and then to Watson Street, and then to Ricks Court, and Sunlake Drive, McGill Boulevard, Odell Street, Diamond Drive, and the calls didn't stop.

City crews collected water samples in the area, which were shipped overnight to an independent laboratory to determine the cause of the odor. Three days later, the city identified the contaminates as benzene, acetone and naphthalene.

At 4:11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8, the customer service manger for San Angelo's Water Department, Petra Trevino, sent an urgent email to Allison Strube, Tymn Combest and Andy Vecellio in the Water Utilities Department, stating her staff had fielded more than 20 calls about the smell and quality of water in the PaulAnn area.

Trevino would later send two more emails in short succession adding more PaulAnn addresses to a growing list of complaints.

At 4:19 p.m. the City of San Angelo issued a 'do not use' water advisory, warning residents citywide to not use water for anything other than flushing toilets and watering lawns. The advisory triggered school closures, event cancellations, and led to businesses, which were still reeling from lost revenue due to COVID-19, once again closing their doors.

Local grocery stores brought in truckloads of water that flew off shelves Tuesday morning as residents stockpiled, uncertain of how long the water ban would last or what prompted the city to take such drastic measures.

Ty Smith with the City of San Angelo Water Department collects samples of water from the intersection of Culwell and Hughes streets Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

Others are reading:Days without power or water: How one San Angelo household weathered the storm

Prior to issuing that advisory, phone logs and complaint records from the Water Utilities Department, as well as emails from public officials, reveal what some PaulAnn residents experienced leading up to San Angelo's worst infrastructure crisis in recent memory.

These records were obtained by the Standard-Times on Monday, March 1, 2021, after filing Freedom of Information Act requests to the City of San Angelo and to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Feb. 9 — one day after the city issued its advisory.

The complaints: 'a bad odor' on Odell Street

Complaint records obtained by the Standard-Times suggest chemical contaminants in San Angelo's water appeared before Monday, Feb. 8. Phone logs from the water department beginning in February record PaulAnn customers complaining of water odor on McGill Boulevard that Sunday.

At 12:35 p.m. Monday, staff with the water quality division arrived at an address in the 3000 block of Odell Street after a resident complained their water had "a bad odor."

"She called before and (staff) went and checked water but no odor was detected … customer stated odor got worse over the weekend," records state.

Courtney Lemons with the city of San Angelo takes a water sample at a testing station on Knickerbocker Rd. on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.

City staff who arrived Monday and collected samples at the Odell residence said they detected "a strong odor." Records state they advised the resident not to use water from the faucet until investigators could run more tests, which they would follow up with a phone call. Velez-Reyes called the resident at 7:25 p.m., records state. 

Another resident at a second address in the 3000 block of Odell Street said their water smelled like "burnt plastic for at least a week," according to a complaint filed at 2:48 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8.

Staff told the resident they were "currently investigating (the) issue" and that the city had received several complaints already. Records state staff also advised the resident not to use their water and to check the city's website and social media platforms for more information throughout the evening.

A complaint: the 'water smells metallic' on Voight Blvd.

At 4 p.m. Feb. 8, less than 20 minutes before officials issued the citywide 'do not use' advisory, a resident in the 3300 block of Voight Boulevard said their water smelled "metallic," and like "iodine or Betadine." 

City staff said they were aware of several complaints in the area and also advised the resident not to use their water, and recommended they check the city's official website later for updates.

Complaint records list a PaulAnn resident living in the 1300 block of Gregory Drive who told officials their water smelled "like a dead animal."

Courtney Lemons with the city of San Angelo takes a water sample at a testing station on Knickerbocker Rd. on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.

PaulAnn resident: 'I thought I was having a panic attack.'

Chrisandra Holden has lived in the PaulAnn neighborhood for six months. Prior to Feb. 8, her family would use tap water to bathe, brush their teeth and wash dishes — all normal things residents expect city water can be relied on for.

Holden said she's been forced to radically alter her routine. On Sunday, Feb. 8, Holden said she and her husband first detected an odor coming out of the faucet.

"There was a slight odor (Sunday), but we didn't think it was anything to be alarmed about." Holden said.

On Monday, the odor in Holden's home became worse and she likened it to "being inside a machine shop." She said her family almost immediately began to feel sick.

"We used (city water) for my husband's coffee. He later got stomach issues," Holden said. "My husband, me and my child were all lethargic Monday morning."

Holden said her 2-year-old child, who took a bath earlier that Sunday, woke up the next morning with "projectile vomiting." She worries her family may have been exposed to dangerous levels of naphthalene and benzene.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists naphthalene as "reasonably anticipated" to be a human carcinogen, citing a study that found the compound causes cancer in lab rats. In particular, it may be associated with a higher risk of colorectal and laryngeal cancers.

Inhaling naphthalene can cause nausea, dizziness and vomiting. In some cases, exposure to large amounts can cause anemia. Ingesting naphthalene could cause kidney damage.

Benzene is a known human carcinogen. It has been linked to an increased risk of lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers, acute myelogenous leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Similar to naphthalene, inhaling moderate to high amounts of acetone for a short amount of time can cause nose, throat, lungs and eye irritation.

San Angelo's water:What were the contaminants identified

Holden, 35, said she experienced both "brain fog" and heart palpitations to the point where she thought she was having a panic attack. Her family has used bottled water to wash dishes and brush their teeth since mid-February.

"We got progressively sicker," Holden said. "It wasn't until Thursday, Feb. 11, when we started to feel normal again."

"It's completely affected our life. I don't even cook with city water," she said. "It's hard, you know? It's hard when you're yelling at a 2-year-old to not turn on the sink when his whole life, he's turned the sink on, and you have to swat at his hand because you don't know what's in that cup of water."

On March 2, 2021, Holden attended Tuesday's meeting of the San Angelo City Council to hear what progress officials have made in figuring out how contaminants spilled into the PaulAnn area.

While there are no restrictions on water usage as of March 2 for most of San Angelo, industrial areas north of the PaulAnn neighborhood still cannot drink, cook or consume city water.

After a closed executive session, Water Utilities Director Allison Strube addressed the public and stated the source of the contamination is still unknown as of Tuesday. She announced more inspectors have arrived in San Angelo to assist with investigations.

"We are turning over every stone," Strube said, and noted the contamination did not occur in a lake or river but from a water customer somewhere in the industrial area.

Strube said officials sealed off water in industrialized areas and said water could not circulate back into residential homes in the PaulAnn neighborhood.

San Angelo water utilities director Allison Strube speaks to reporters at a press conference about the city's ongoing water crisis at the McNease Convention Center on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021

When officials can determine the source of San Angelo's contaminated water, Holden said she hopes the city holds those who may have been responsible accountable.

"I would like to see the city put something into the works to ensure that this never happens again," Holden said. "And if the children or adults in this area that were affected need any medical attention, then that needs to be put on the responsible parties."

For more information on the current water situation in PaulAnn, visit the City of San Angelo's Facebook page or website. The Water Quality Lab can be reached at 325-481-2722.

Others are reading:Source of contaminated water in PaulAnn still a mystery; here's what San Angelo is doing

John Tufts covers enterprise and investigative topics in West Texas. Send him a news tip at JTufts@Gannett.com