Corpus Christi Turns to Emergency Bottles After Chemical Taints Water Supply

Residents reported long lines for bottled water at stores.

December 16, 2016, 5:36 AM

— -- The Gulf Coast city of Corpus Christi, Texas, announced early Thursday it will begin distributing emergency supplies of bottled water a day after warning its more than 300,000 residents that a hazardous chemical has made the tap water unsafe for drinking, bathing, brushing teeth, washing dishes or washing clothes.

But some residents in outlying parts of Corpus Christi were informed late Thursday that they could resume using tap water. Officials directed residents to refer to an online map.

The city announced Thursday that it will give out 27,000 cases of donated bottled water and will set up drive-through centers to speed the distribution process. Officials said on Thursday that 100,000 cases of water were on its way to the city, and each family is allowed only two cases.

"This is just the beginning of what we are doing to help our residents or citizens," city spokeswoman Kim Womack said at an event Thursday to update the public on the contamination incident, which led to the city's warning on Wednesday about using tap water and prompted the closure of at least some city schools and a rush on bottled water at local stores.

As Womack was finishing speaking, some residents in the audience began to shout in protest, including some asking how those without cars would be able to get the emergency supplies.

The problems occurred after an estimated 3 to 24 gallons of a petroleum-based chemical called Indulin AA-86 seeped into the city's water because of a backflow from an area oil refinery, city officials said.

At a press conference Thursday night, Corpus Christi mayor Dan McQueen said, "Let me reiterate that all of this was caused by a third party. None of this was caused by the city."

McQueen also said the city would lift water restrictions for three areas within Corpus Christi, and

The city statement warning against using tap water said, "Boiling, freezing, filtering, adding chlorine or other disinfectants or letting the water stand will not make the water safe."

The city has yet to identify the refinery, but officials said in a press conference earlier today that they are investigating the incident and working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on the issue.

"Our goal is to get us out of this as soon as absolutely possible so that our residents, our businesses, our customers can go back to their way of life," Womack said.

Residents said lines to buy bottled water have been so long that they wrap around stores.

"It's worse than whenever we have hurricane evacuations," Noe Garcia, 28, said of the lines.

Indulin AA-86, which is used as an asphalt emollient, is considered hazardous by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It can cause burns to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, according a safety data sheet released by its manufacturer.

Garcia, a lifelong Texas resident who works as a landscape manager and oversees a ranch, said he was about to take a shower this morning when he saw messages from friends highlighting the city warning.

"Right before I was about to take a shower ... I noticed [Facebook messages]," he told ABC News. "I saw that. I turned off the water immediately."

Garcia said he spent his morning standing in line for bottled water for his family and for his mother at a nursing home. By midday, he had filled up a 1,000-gallon tank with well water from the family ranch and was going to distribute water to family and friends.

Garcia said frequent problems with water safety have been a frustration for him and his family.

"It's things like this that make us wonder, why do we have to pay taxes? Why do we have to pay a water bill [without getting refunded]?" he said.

Corpus Christi's prior water problems include a boil-water advisory in May, the third in a year, which lasted two weeks and was largely a precautionary measure, officials said at the time, after nitrogen-rich rain runoff flowed into the water system.

Boil-water notices were issued last year because of elevated levels of E. coli and low chlorine levels, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times previously reported.

An ongoing concern in the city is an old water system with 225 miles of cast-iron pipe, more than half of which needs to be upgraded, The Associated Press reported. Many of the pipes were installed in the 1950s, and when they decay, they're prone to collapse or to slow water flow, allowing bacteria to fester.

ABC News' Kayna Whitworth and Jonah Lustig contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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