New Mexico environmental officials issued an unusual report Friday, detailing their findings into the cause of an “uncommon” water quality issue at a Doña Ana county water utility from December.
While the report identified issues that caused high pH sent to homes at the end of 2023, it also listed dozens of serious defects that could affect the water system’s daily operations, including concerns leading to “high levels of arsenic” being sent to customers.
The 132-page report is broken into two sections. It leads with documents that show how “systematic failures by management” led to a multi-day “do not drink” order for about 1,000 households in early December 2023.
In a press release, the New Mexico Environment Department said utility management and staff had several key failures causing water with an “extremely high” pH to be sent to customers.
State environment inspectors concluded that a pH sensor malfunction, combined with a failure of utility staff to recognize the water treatment failure led to too much caustic soda entering the treatment process, and raising the pH levels of water.
The agency also said the utility failed to look into customer complaints in the days before the order, failed to test monitoring equipment and did not inform the public that facilities used to treat arsenic were offline “periodically over the past year.”
“While many of New Mexico’s water utilities face challenges from lack of staff, funding, and the changing climate, our investigation identified that CRRUA failed at multiple levels and showed a disregard for operating under basic state and federal regulations,” said Drinking Water Bureau head Joe Martinez.
JC Crosby, the interim director for Camino Real Regional Utility Authority, did not respond to texts, emails or voicemails left on Friday.
Water utilities have a “legal and moral obligation” to provide safe drinking water, said John Rhoderick, who directs the Water Protection Division at the New Mexico Environment Department.
“CRRUA repeatedly failed to follow basic protocols in water management, implement safeguards to ensure compliance, and inform their customers when they fell short,” Rhoderick said in the statement.
A sanitary survey of CRRUA operations on two consecutive days beginning Dec. 5 makes up the second portion of the report. It notes that the utility had 58 “significant deficiencies” that are causing or might pose potential threats to public health.
Staff concerns, such as an operator in charge “was not familiar with the arsenic treatment process,” or that staff were not trained on drinking water regulations, are highlighted in the report.
Facility and management issues were also noted.
Some deficiencies include a lack of alarms or automatic shutdowns for when treatment chemicals are out of acceptable range, no emergency plans, and leaks in treatment chemical storage tanks.
Previously, the water utility’s seven-member governing board promised to schedule a public hearing after the release of state investigation. No meetings are currently posted on the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority website.
The utility may face fines from the state in the future, if it fails to meet deadlines set by the agency, said Matt Maez, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department.
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Findings from the high pH investigation
State environment inspectors provided additional details about the December water quality incident, including a timeline and narrative. It reinforced the preliminary cause that the utility added too much caustic soda during treatment.
Officials met Camino Real Regional Utility Authority staff at the Santa Teresa Industrial Park Arsenic Treatment Plant on Saturday, Dec. 2, just 24 hours after the “do not drink” order was issued.
That plant has several wells that provide drinking water for the community, and is supposed to be disinfected using chlorine and have arsenic removed, the report said.
Geology in the area causes arsenic to be concentrated in groundwater at higher amounts than allowed by federal drinking water standards (10 parts per billion), according to the utility.
The Santa Teresa Industrial Park Arsenic Treatment Plant is able to treat up to 4.5 million gallons of water daily.
Part of that process, the report said, is injecting sulfuric acid into the water high in arsenic, causing a reaction, and eventually allowing another process to filter arsenic out. After the arsenic removal, caustic soda is added to neutralize the water and raise the pH before it’s sent to storage tanks, and eventually, customers.
New Mexico Environment Department inspectors found as much as 1,484 gallons of caustic soda may have been injected into the water supply, causing the high pH levels, which were at levels that were unsafe to drink, bathe in or wash dishes.
“NMED staff were unable to calculate the exact amount of caustic soda injection due to the lack of monitoring, process control and recordkeeping by CRRUA operations staff,” investigators wrote.
The probe, which helps detect pH levels of treated water, could have failed as early as Nov. 21, investigators said. Readings are attached to the report that show significantly abnormal pH levels.
“The pH sensor displaying a negative value should have indicated a treatment failure to CRRUA operations staff,” the report stated.
Additionally, state environment officials concluded the utility “also failed to fully investigate complaints from customers” who had alerted Camino Real Regional Utility Authority to “slimy water” as early as Nov. 28.
Caustic soda can cause a “soapy” or “slick” feeling to the touch, according to the report, potentially explaining the complaints from customers.
58 significant deficiencies
State officials said the utility needs to immediately address dozens of shortfalls in operation and management across the entire Camino Real Regional Utility Authority.
Immediate corrections included training the operator on arsenic treatment and required checks of chemical-testing equipment.
Investigators said that Camino Real Regional Utility Authority must provide arsenic treatment and documentation by no later than Dec. 31, 2023.
It’s unclear if CRRUA has provided documentation to address these deficiencies from the report.
“At the time of the sanitary survey, three of four arsenic treatment plants were intentionally bypassed, allowing untreated water into the distribution system,” the report said.
State officials say CRRUA has a long line of other fixes.
In the next two to three months the utility must address leaks that left caustic soda to build up “three inches deep” around tanks, create an emergency response plan, install alarms and automatic shutdowns during emergencies, buy replacement equipment to continue treating water, check to see how much water is lost every year and require staff to attend trainings on the state’s drinking water regulations.
Within the next six months to a year, New Mexico environment officials said the utility must build splash pads to reduce erosion around a crucial tank for Sunland Park and perform an inspection for every storage tank that holds water.
In addition to the significant deficiencies the utility is legally required to address, environment department inspectors also recommended the utility add safety features, to prevent fines from other agencies, such as the federal Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA).
In areas using gaseous chlorine, the agency suggested the utility install safety features, such as push bar doors, ventilation systems and alarms.