Houston operator behind Kingwood sewage leak may get city water deal

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

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 gallons of water a day, providing potable water for 1 million people, about a quarter of the city’s customer base.

The contract would shift 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 the city has made a final decision on whether to move forward with the contract.

Still, Inframark has been asked to submit its best-and-final offer on the proposal, typically a last step to distinguish close scoring bids. Jacobs Engineering is the other finalist, according to a trade publication that tracks water contracts. Houston procurement documents show Inframark has been attending conference meetings and site visits for the contract.

RELATED: Kingwood operators released sewage in creek that feeds into Houston’s drinking water, HPD alleges

The best-and-final 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 the investigators had gathered evidence that operators at the Inframark-run plant forged samples and other documents to suggest they adequately had treated sewage when they had not. Inframark runs the plant, and uses Busby Environmental and Envirodyne to take samples and test them, respectively.

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

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

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

BACKGROUND: Houston police search Kingwood wastewater plant where residents have complained about odor, fumes

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

It is not clear whether police believe the operator intentionally was dumping the inadequately treated sewage, or if the release was limited to two spills from tanks at the plant. Morrissey listed the crimes for accidental release and intentional release in his warrant.

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

“We remain committed to the safe, efficient, and compliant operation of the Kingwood Central Wastewater Treatment Facility,” said company spokeswoman Miranda Sevcik. “One focus of the third-party investigation, commissioned by us, is to answer the city’s questions surrounding the performance of the facility, and we are working with the city to address any issues affecting the plant’s operations.“

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 have private operations, and Inframark for decades has operated five wastewater plants in Kingwood, but the city’s main drinking water system remains under Public Works.

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

The city’s request for proposals raised alarm with some advocacy organizations and resident groups, even before Inframark’s troubles at the Kingwood plant surfaced in February.

Ben Hirsch, an organizer with West Street Recovery, a nonprofit dedicated to disaster recovery, said the group is concerned about the potential effects privatization can have on residents who rely 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 worried the company will be more focused on providing profit to shareholders than providing quality service.

“Water privatization, in general, has a really poor record of improving service and accountability, “ Hirsch said. “Drinking water is an essential life requirement. Right now, Houston is providing the water, and you can certainly level criticism at Houston, but at least right now you can go to City Hall and talk about your drinking water and talk to your city councilor. Once the system is at Inframark, the system is so much less porous in terms of accessibility.”

Corporate Accountability USA, a national watchdog group, put the contract on West Street’s radar. Neil Gupta, the water campaign director for the organization, said it has seen water systems deteriorate in other parts of the country when they move to private contractors.

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Gupta cites failures in Pittsburgh, Pa., where a lead crisis broke out shortly after the city moved its water system to a private contractor; Bayonne, N.J., where residents’ bills shot up; Hugo, Okla., where Inframark (formerly Severn Trent) was fined $1 million for improperly treating drinking water; and North Miami Beach, Fla., which canceled its contract with Jacobs because it did not save the city as much money as expected, and water bills increased.

In 2018, the Greater Ouachita Water Company in Louisiana also replaced Inframark as its operator following complaints of brown water and excessively high bills, along with a lawsuit by residents alleging negligence and breach of contract. The company has had contract issues in Belle Chase La.; Fort Myers, Fla.; and Portland, Ore.

Gupta said he finds it concerning that there has been no opportunity for public input on the plan, even if the contract has not been awarded yet.

“It’s happening behind closed doors, and the public only really is made aware of it at the last minute, when it is too late,” said Gupta.

Reporter Yilun Cheng contributed to this article.


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