Houston operator behind Kingwood sewer leak could get city water deal

Houston operator behind Kingwood sewer leak could get city water deal
Houston operator behind Kingwood sewer leak could get city water deal

Inframark, the company whose botched operations at a Kingwood sewage plant allegedly led to the release of inadequately treated sewage into a Lake Houston tributary, is a finalist to win another city deal: a contract to operate one of Houston’s largest drinking water facilities.

The contract would privatize operations at the Southeast Water Purification Plant, one of the city’s three main facilities for treating drinking water. The plant is responsible for treating 200 million liters of water a day, providing drinking water to 1 million people, about a quarter of the city’s customer base.

The contract would move part of the city’s main drinking water system into private control. The city is said to be exploring its options by gathering the potential costs of privatization and weighing whether it would be more efficient. It does not appear that the municipality has made a final decision on whether to proceed with the contract.

Nevertheless, Inframark has been asked to provide its best and final offer on the proposal, usually a final step to distinguish between good and final bids. Jacobs Engineering is the other finalist, according to a trade publication that tracks water contracts. Houston procurement documents show Inframark has participated in conference calls and site visits for the contract.

RELATED: Kingwood operators discharged sewage into creek that flows into Houston’s drinking water, HPD claims

The best and latest offer came about two months before Houston police investigators searched the Kingwood Central Wastewater Treatment Plant last month. Police Sgt. Patrick Morrissey told a judge that investigators had gathered evidence that operators at the Inframark-operated facility falsified samples and other documents to suggest they had adequately treated sewage when they had not. Inframark operates the plant, and uses Busby Environmental and Envirodyne for taking samples and testing them, respectively.

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Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin, whose District E includes Kingwood, said he is not surprised that Inframark would have been a competitive bidder for the water contract before the sewer spill.

“It’s going to depend on the investigation, but now they’re a little tainted,” Martin said.

Both Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office and Houston Public Works have declined comment, citing the ongoing procurement process.

BACKGROUND: Houston police are searching the Kingwood sewage plant where residents have complained of odors, smoke

The inadequately treated wastewater released from the facility contained about 60 times the maximum E.coli bacteria allowed by the state, according to the search warrant. It entered Ben’s Branch, a tributary that feeds Lake Houston, one of Houston’s main sources of drinking water. That the water is treated at separate facilities before it reaches customers, and Public Works has claimed that the episode did not affect the city’s drinking water.

It is not clear whether the police believe that the operator intentionally dumped inadequately treated sewage, or whether the discharge was limited to two discharges from tanks at the plant. Morrissey listed the felonies of involuntary release and intentional release in his warrant.

The criminal investigation into the facility continues. Inframark said the facility has returned to compliance with state and federal treatment standards.

“We remain committed to the safe, efficient and compliant operation of Kingwood’s central wastewater treatment facility,” company spokeswoman Miranda Sevcik said. “A focus of the third-party investigation, commissioned by us, is to answer the city’s questions about the performance of the facility, and we are working with the city to resolve any issues affecting the facility’s operations.”

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Public Works currently has 35 employees and a $13.5 million budget at the Southeast Water Purification Plant, according to the department. There are smaller parts of the system near Lake Houston that are privately operated, and Inframark has for decades operated five sewage plants in Kingwood, but the city’s main drinking water system remains under public works.

KINGWOOD INSIDER: Stay up to date on important stories and news around Kingwood, Humble and Atascocita.

The city’s request for proposals raised alarm among some advocacy organizations and residents’ groups, even before Inframark’s problems at the Kingwood facility surfaced in February.

Ben Hirsch, an organizer with West Street Recovery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to disaster recovery, said the group is concerned about the potential effects privatization could have on residents who depend on that water. The Kingwood episode exacerbates that concern, he said.

The group held a meeting last week to educate some community members about the ongoing contract process. Hirsch said he is concerned the company will be more focused on providing profit to shareholders than providing quality services.

“Water privatization generally has a very poor record of improving service and accountability,” Hirsch said. “Drinking water is an important life requirement. Right now Houston provides the water and sure you can criticize Houston, but right now you can at least go to city hall and talk about your drinking water and talk to your city council member. Once the system is with Inframark, the system is so much less porous in terms of availability.”

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