AUSTIN, Texas — Texas’ environmental regulator on Friday barred most uses of the water at an oilfield camp converted into a holding center for immigrant teenagers, raising alarms about the safety of more than 400 youths detained there.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said running water at the Midland camp could be used only to flush toilets or wash clothes because officials aren’t sure whether the water is safe. It’s unknown how many teenagers may have drunk from taps or used it otherwise. They are now being given water bottles for drinking.
Safety concerns have continued to emerge since President Joe Biden’s administration hastily converted what was a “man camp” for oilfield workers into a detention site for teenagers that opened Sunday night. U.S. officials have rushed to open new sites to hold teenagers and children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to try to clear packed Border Patrol facilities currently holding more than 4,500 youths.
The Midland camp did not have an active permit with TCEQ for a public water system, according to the agency’s online records. The camp is operated by Katy, Texas-based Cotton Logistics.
Texas Sen. Kel Seliger said Friday that water on site is drawn from a well that the company drilled without getting a TCEQ permit.
“They just drilled the well,” said Seliger, a Republican who represents Midland. “It’s a pretty shallow well, and that’s where the concern comes in for naturally occurring arsenic, nitrates possibly. Hopefully not oilfield pollutants, but they don’t know.”
It’s unclear whether TCEQ has tested the water or whether any hazardous chemicals have been found. Cotton Logistics did not respond to a message seeking comment.
U.S. Health and Human Services, which operates long-term facilities for immigrant children, said the water at the Midland facility “is deemed potable and is tested regularly above standards,” but would not say who did the testing and what the testing found. HHS also did not answer questions about when it learned of concerns about the water.
“We are in contact with our contractor to ensure clean water is accessible for kids and staff in the facility,” HHS spokeswoman Luisana Perez said.
Seliger and Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf said they were told federal agencies were previously using water from the well for showers and handwashing. TCEQ said in a statement that Cotton Logistics is now preparing to haul water to the site and the agency would have to approve any plan to do so.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement accusing the Biden administration of “abject failure when it comes to ensuring the safety of unaccompanied minors who cross our border.” The Republican governor, facing criticism over his lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and his handling of a winter storm that knocked out the state’s power grid, has been sharply critical of the new Democratic administration’s handling of the border.
HHS earlier this week stopped taking teenagers to the facility for now as the agency opens another emergency holding center at the downtown Dallas convention center, which is expected to reach 400 teenagers Friday.
One official working at the Midland site previously noted several deficiencies in the first days of the camp — from a shortage of Spanish-speaking caregivers to an initial lack of new clothing for teenagers who were commonly wearing the same clothes in which they had crossed the border. More than 10% of the nearly 500 teenagers at the site have tested positive for COVID-19.
The American Red Cross has supplied volunteers to care for teenagers in Midland and Dallas. Neither HHS nor the Red Cross will say whether the volunteers have undergone FBI fingerprint background checks, which are more comprehensive than a typical commercial background check.
Local officials in Midland say federal agencies have failed to keep them informed or ensure that teenagers and the surrounding community are kept safe.
Nodolf, the Midland district attorney, said she only learned Friday that if a potential crime occurred on site or a teenager ran away, federal agencies would call the local sheriff’s office for help. A security fence is still under construction even as teenagers have been on site for nearly a week.
“These children have been the subject of mistreatment at the hands of the federal government due to their lack of preparation and operational planning,” she said, adding: “This is not political. This is the well-being of children.”
Merchant reported from Houston.