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When the Bard-well went dry

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Citizens raise stink over lack of water

Cite mayor’s inaction; state investigating

            BARDWELL - Residents of this small town outside of Ennis are raising a stink this week in more ways than one after the failure of the city water system on March 18.

Investigators from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality began receiving “numerous and multiple complaints” from Bardwell citizens, according to Tony Wolfe, regional supervisor for TCEQ.

Investigators received “tons” of complaints from citizens of Bardwell, complaining of low water pressure. TCEQ, acting on these complaints sent investigators to Bardwell to look in to the issue. What they found was a plethora of violations, both civil and criminal.

Wolfe informed The Ellis County Press that state law required the City of Bardwell to issue a “boil water order” to its citizens within 24 hours of a pressure drop.

Wolfe said this was not done.  Wolfe also said city officials failed to report the drop in pressure, as required by law to state officials. According to TCEQ’s investigator, as well as Wolfe, the only reason TCEQ found out about the issue was through the numerous complaints received through its hotline. The city, according to TCEQ officials, failed to “timely report water pressure problems and failed to issue the boil order notice as required by law.”

This responsibility, according to state officials was left to Mayor Prentice (P.W.) “Jinker” Gentry, in addition to the water superintendent.

According to TCEQ, it was once they became involved that the city was forced to issue a boil order, which they failed to do without state intervention.

City officials didn’t notify public

Neither city official reported the water outage, or the drop in pressure. When contacted, Gentry refused to respond to repeated requests for comment.

            Mayor Pro-Tem Alvie Hollingsworth was contacted on March 26th regarding the issue.

The problem, according to Hollingsworth, was discovered on March 18th.  According to Hollingsworth, the City of Bardwell lost all water pressure when it’s only well pump failed.   

Hollingsworth said there was an emergency connection to the rural water district;

however, adequate pressure remained below state mandated limits.

Hollingsworth, when questioned about the issue, told the ECP “he understood why citizens were pissed.” He said he had lived there for 44 years and knew why they were upset.

When asked as to why a boil order was delayed until March 25, he said they were “doing the best they could do.”

However, “the best they could do” was not enough, according to officials with TCEQ.  Wolfe advised this was not adequate, and in fact, was illegal.  He cited several sections of state law regarding public water systems, and noted that for the City of Bardwell’s failure to act, through Mayor Gentry, in issuing a boil order notice by March 19, the day after the failure, the City of Bardwell could face fines of up to $10,000 per day for each violation of the state statute, in addition to other penalties.

Bardwell fined before on water

Wolfe cited additional fines that the city incurred in its water system, which included investigations from June of 2007.  The City of Bardwell was fined $3,360 in May 1997 and $1,438 in January 2002 for failing to maintain a safe drinking water supply.

In multiple instances the state has cited numerous issues during investigations.  During the March 2001 investigation, 10 violations of the Texas Health and Safety Code were noted.

When Hollingsworth was asked about the situation, he asked “Why are you asking me this- it’s obvious you know what’s going on.

Hollingsworth said he knows nothing of the day to day operations of the city, and that he “works 12 hours a day, and is never at City Hall.”

Hollingsworth was asked could the city afford fines at the rate of $10,000 per day, and his response was “I have no further comments.”

Ellis County Emergency Management Coordinator Sharon McKinney was contacted in regards to the situation and advised of the results of tests conducted by the ECP which showed little to no water pressure.  She said she had not been contacted by Mayor Gentry to request water deliveries to the citizens. She said without his request, the county could not become involved.  Officials with the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office were apprised of the water situation in Bardwell on March 25, but they said it was a matter the city had to deal with.

Some 60 percent of the citizens of Bardwell are elderly. The citizens, according to former city councilmember Becky Cryer, a resident of Bardwell was not informed until after 5 p.m. on March 25th that their water was not safe to drink.

Cryer said by the time the city had issued a boil order, the water went from a dribble to absolutely nothing flowing from the tap.   She referred the ECP to some elderly residents, who refused to identify themselves out of fear of retaliation from Mayor Gentry.

One said she had been drinking the “little bit of water she could get out of her tap,” not knowing it should be boiled.

According to one witness, Lester Hammond, said while the town went dry, the mayor remained at his personal shop in Bardwell, consuming alcohol with on-duty Bardwell Police Chief Michael Spurgeon, who moved his arm to conceal the beer can when  spotted.  

Hammond noted Spurgeon was on duty, in uniform and driving a marked squad car while consuming alcohol. Hammond said this is a regular occurrence and that while the city’s infrastructure has problems, the mayor and other city officials are on the mayor’s personal property consuming alcohol instead of attending to the business and operation of the city.

 

Such was the case on Sat., March 22, when this reporter was in Bardwell and witnessed a large gathering at Spurgeon’s residence on Highway 34, while two reserve officers (who are not legally appointed) were patrolling the city.

One of those officers, George Spurgeon, was driving his personal vehicle while on police patrol.

After TCEQ and the ECP became involved, work quickly began on the city’s water system.

The ECP contacted the American Red Cross’ Disaster Services Unit and spoke with their public information officer.  She said she had just spoken with the Ellis County  emergency management coordinator, McKinney, who said “it wasn’t that big of an issue- and should be resolved within 24 hours.”  

When informed by the ECP of the situation, Red Cross officials said they were to call an emergency conference call to attempt to get local officials to address the situation.

When contacted, Gentry refused to cooperate, saying his city didn’t have the money to “truck in water to its citizens.”

According to current and former city officials, Bardwell holds in excess of $60,000 in a reserve fund set aside for water emergencies.

According to health statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Environmental Protection Agency, inadequate water pressure can lead to increased contamination, resulting in potentially fatal illnesses such as E-coli, as well as causing stomach flu-like symptoms, such as diarrhea. Some who have drank the water have complained of diarrhea since drinking the water after the pumps failed, and before being notified to boil the water. The same situation is happening in Milford, where residents there were notified by TCEQ of contaminants reaching dangerously high levels. When contacted repeatedly, Milford’s city hall phone number was busy.

While Gentry and Hollingsworth said they thought this water situation was “a minor issue,” KTVT Channel 11, Dallas’ CBS affiliate, saw it differently, sending a news team last week to investigate. Gentry, the mayor since 2002, refused to have an on-camera interview.

Citizens report not being able to “flush their toilets” or even bathe.   One citizen said she couldn’t even go to church because she hasn’t been able to bathe in over a week because of the water failure.

According to TCEQ officials, this case has been referred to the enforcement division for possible fines, sanctions, and criminal violations. Such actions could lead to criminal and civil sanctions for the mayor.

TCEQ said that they could not force Gentry to bring in safe water, citing statutory restrictions.

Amid the water controversy, some in the city are calling for the immediate resignation and prosecution of Gentry. Some have said that if their illnesses are related to the contaminated water, lawsuits will be filed, with the mayor being named as a defendant.

Health problems cited

Some in this small town have reported health issues, including diareah, nausea, vomiting, and mysterious cold sores and boils appearing in their mouths and on their skin after consuming the water.

            Numerous attempts were made to contact Gentry, as well as Councilmember Maggie Walker for comment on this story. Neither returned phone calls as of press time.  

Bardwell City Secretary Shannon Spurgeon was relayed messages, but said the mayor was unavailable despite his presence at City Hall.

 


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