Of sewage and secrets

When your family is sick, a lot of things become your business.

Like how local government is supposed to work, and how it actually behaves. In the case of the Lara family, it also meant tracking the condition of the neighbor’s water well and who had the best deal on bottled water that week.

Elsa Lara knew before the property next door changed hands in 2003 that the septic system there was failing. But even as the unpermitted system exposed low-income residents to sewage month after month, Kerr County officials turned adversarial, denied her public records, and allowed a serious public-health situation to linger. It’s a situation that has, according to a variety of tenants who lived there, meant ongoing illness and, for some, the need for medical treatment they cannot afford.

“I’m telling you there’s people at risk and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Lara says.

Guadalupe Chabarria moved into the Roy Street property just outside Kerrville’s northern limit with her family in August 2003. Soon she was complaining to Lara about her feet and face swelling. Her husband had chronic diarrhea and stomach pains, she said. More troubling were their son’s mosquito bites, which never seemed to heal right, often lingering as open wounds.

“My daughter was constantly saying, ‘My stomach hurts. My stomach hurts,’” Chabarria said last week.

When they complained about the smell and look of their water, the landlord first told them to add more salt to the water softener, Chabarria said. When a slick, orangeish scum coated the shower tile, he blamed sediment in the system. Other times, he would come over and simply pour bleach down the well.

Each time he insisted there was nothing wrong with the system. Both the Chabarrias and the Laras quit drinking their water after seeing sewage in the back yard.

After the Chabarrias came the Francos in 2006. The family doctor told their pregnant daughter she needed to find another place to live – someplace where the smell of sewage didn’t exacerbate her morning sickness.

When the smells and insects became particularly bad, the family investigated outside and discovered a standing pool of sewage beneath the house.

The next renters came and went within a month.

After being hit by an intense, week-long round of diarrhea and vomiting, the new neighbor had the water tested and told Lara, “They told me we were drinking S-H-I-T water,” Lara recalled.

Then the man’s girlfriend complained to Lara about swollen hands and feet. In a dizzying flash, the connection between the water, sickness, and her old friend Guadalupe collided in her mind. She began to suspect health problems within her own family and stopped letting her children play outside.

County records show that Lara lodged her first complaint in November 2004. It would take the county almost three years to get the illegal, leaking system replaced.

After numerous calls to the county environmental-health department, state environmental groups, and elected representatives, Lara finally asked flat out for the file on her neighbor’s well about a year and a half ago.

“This is none of your business,” she says she was told by county investigator Patricia Hullet. “We have it under control.”

When she objected, she was cut off. “This is a private matter,” Hullet allegedly told her.

When the Current contacted Kerr County Environmental Health to check on Lara’s claims, we were referred to the County Attorney’s office and hung up on before we could ask about the case. Two messages left for Hullet were not returned.

Lara didn’t know such records were public by state law until she had a long talk with a representative of the Texas Council for Environmental Quality earlier this year. Then she went back for the KCEH file a few days later.

First, she says, an employee told her no, she couldn’t see the documents.

When she explained what she had learned about open records, something the whole staff should have been acquainted with, the woman said Lara could fill out the form if she wanted but she still couldn’t have the file. As she pressed her case, an inspector asked bluntly: “What do you want it for?”

Armed with a knowledge of state law, Lara got her file and then made a formal complaint against the department for allegedly violating state Open Records laws. (See “Open Record, wrong question,” this page)

Drawing a straight line between water contamination and illness based on the records kept by the Upper Guadalupe River Authority has been more difficult.

The UGRA doesn’t list amounts of e coli and coliform – bacterial contamination not usually encountered underground – when it conducts basic groundwater tests for water wells and the like. Instead, they merely report presence or absence. The well went through a battery of tests in 2002 and 2003, coming up negative for contamination. Coliform was found in the kitchen faucet however after Chabarria move in to the rental owned by Amando Garces.

Garces calls the complaints by Lara a “bunch of lies.”

“First of all, it was none of her business. It wasn’t her property, why was she dabbling into my business?” he asks. Then he adds: “Shit doesn’t go uphill … and you don’t have to quote me and you don’t have to write that down neither.”

The county, however, recognized the problem as “an imminent health and safety hazard,” as Garces was told in a letter earlier this year, but failed again and again to protect local residents.

Lara rifles the many sampling reports she collected, indicating the many positive as well as negative samples. Only when she collected and paid for her own tests did she get actual numbers back from UGRA: 66 “colony forming units” per 100 milliliters and a trace amount of e coli. It was significant enough to cause a health problem, according to county records. Others suggested she may have contaminated her own sample.

After shocking the well with bleach, the following test came up positive for coliform at five units per 100 milliliters.

Coliform bacteria, found in the feces of warm-blooded mammals, does not in itself cause illness. Instead it is used as a measure to determine when other, more dangerous bacteria and pathogens may be present.

The county’s investigation was hampered, however, according to Kerr County Attorney Rex Emerson and Kerr County Commissioner Bruce Oehler. They had left it to Lara to produce her former neighbors to make formal complaints and she hadn’t come through, they said.

Lara says she was waiting for Chabarria to collect her medical records when she received a letter from the county stating the investigation was closed.

Considering the county had inspected the property and found “grey and black water discharge on top of the ground” back in late 2004, why had they not tracked down these families themselves?

“You have to understand,” begins County Attorney Emerson, “all we had was a semi-hysterical lady who made repeated allegations who could never produce anything solid to back up what she said … We dealt with her repeatedly. We just never could get anywhere.”

When Commissioner Oehler tried to set up a time to test the Lara well, Elsa Lara had second thoughts and refused. According to Emerson, Lara had refused testing several times after seeking it repeatedly.

That didn’t sit well with the county. Internal communication there had begun to hint the Laras may be considering a lawsuit against the county. One memo stated that Lara at one point had told a KCEH inspector she held them “partly” responsible for neglecting the situation for so long.

“I told `Assistant County Attorney` Ilse that it was important that we get Ms. Lara to let us take well samples so that we could determine if there really was septic contamination of her well,” a KCEH employee wrote in June. “Ilse said we could get a court order to take the sample if the Lara’s wouldn’t allow us to do it. She said we should use this as a wedge on getting the sample taken.”

Lara says she refused testing twice because she became afraid at the last minute. She wondered, if contamination was found, could her family be punished?

When asked directly what they want, neither Elsa Lara nor Guadalupe Chabarria speaks of courts or money. It’s hard to believe, considering Guadalupe is now on her sixth round of antibiotics for a stomach infection. She also needs to see a specialist about her bleeding rectum. A specialist she can’t afford.

Both say their families have suffered from H. pylori infections. H. pylori is a relatively common bacterium linked to unclean water and a sometimes painful potential precursor of stomach ulcers and cancer.

Instead of leaping after money or demanding compensation, Guadalupe talks of others.

“It’s my responsibility, because I’m hurt already, to make sure that nobody else gets hurt,” Guadalupe says. Speaking of other Roy Street tenants, she adds, “What if that family comes to me and said, ‘You knew?’”

Lara, who still lives next door to the site of contamination, says only, “I have to make sure my child’s drinking water is safe, and I want to make sure my neighbors never get sick again.”

Open Record, wrong question

Calling all public-relations experts, Kerr County needs you on the quick.

While investigating the many complaints made by Roy Street residents past and present, the Current couldn’t help seeing things increasingly from the Laras’ perspective.

Our solid impartiality first softens when Kerr County Environmental Health Department reps refuse to speak to us, sending us along to the County Attorney instead. Then after the day sneaks by without a returned call from the attorney, we’re back at KCEH.

We’re informed now in a hostile bureaucratic incivility that we had been “ordered” to call the county attorney’s office and they had “nothing else to say.” Then “Julie” hangs up on us.

So, we’re thinking, these are the folks Lara has contended with for all these years?

At the Upper Guadalupe River Authority in Kerrville, the Current encounters misunderstanding of state law when requesting copies of the many well tests performed on Roy Street. Although a UGRA representative says the agency abides by the Open Records act, she insists that any request must be made – physically – at the Kerrville office. No emails. No fax.

We’ve lost it now. That solid impartiality has turned liquid and begun to boil.

According to state Open Records law, any agency supported in part or whole by public funds is required to make their records available to the public.

State law also specifically states that requests by fax or email are appropriate. When we call back, the general manager at UGRA says they would be happy to take our request by email.

Kerr County Attorney Rex Emerson says an investigation was conducted into Elsa Lara’s allegation of Open Records violations at the environmental-health department. Since Lara’s first request for documents was oral and not written it fell outside the nature of Open Records law, he says.

As to her second denial, when Lara was told she couldn’t have the records whether she put it in ink or not? Emerson says this written request was provided within the 10-day period required by law. Closed book.

Steam. Steam.