CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Corpus Christi, a Texas Gulf Coast city, is warning its 320,000 residents not to use tap water because it might be contaminated with petroleum-based chemicals, prompting a rush on bottled water and the closure of local schools.
City officials said in a statement late Wednesday that a “back-flow incident” in an industrial area earlier that day may have caused the chemicals to seep into the water. The statement did not identify the chemicals or the plant from where they originated.
The issues of safe drinking water and eroding infrastructure have gained widespread attention in recent years due to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead pipes contaminated the water supply after the city switched from a metropolitan Detroit system to improperly treated Flint River water in 2014.
City councilman Michael Hunter told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that it’s unlikely the chemicals infecting the city’s supply are concentrated enough to do harm, but that officials must “take every precaution that we can to make sure that everybody is safe.”
Hunter said a local company reported that the water coming from faucets at its plant had a sheen, but he did not identify that company or the nature of its business. Hunter described the possible contaminants as two petroleum-based chemicals.
City officials warned in a statement that, “Boiling, freezing, filtering, adding chlorine or other disinfectants, or letting the water stand will not make the water safe.”
Schools were closed Thursday and the warning prompted long lines to form at grocery stores, with people pushing carts filled with packages of bottled water. At least two large retailers, H-E-B and Wal-Mart, have contacted their shipping centers to have more water sent to the city.
The warning is the latest for a city beset by problems with its drinking water.
In May, officials issued their third boil-water advisory in a year. That notice lasted two weeks and officials at the time said it was largely a precautionary measure taken after nitrogen-rich runoff from rain flowed into the water system, resulting in low chlorine disinfectant levels in the water supply.
Boil-water notices were issued last year because of elevated levels of E. coli and another for low chlorine levels, the Caller-Times previously reported. The notices mirrored two others that were issued in 2007.
City crews have worked to reconfigure some water mains to ensure that water keeps circulating and to prevent bacteria growth. But an overarching concern is an old water system where more than half of 225 miles of cast-iron pipe needs to be upgraded. 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.
Civic leaders have expressed concern that recurring water advisories and warnings could cause long-term harm to the area’s vibrant tourism business.