COLUMBUS — Colorado County Judge Ty Prause last week characterized the investigation by three state agencies in to multiple incidents of contamination at Skull Creek over the last 60 days as “bureaucratic chaos,” and said officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality “either could not or would not” tell him when testing on water samples taken from the creek in February would be completed.
Prause’s revelations came during an hour-long, exclusive interview with The Colorado County Citizen last Wednesday.
The day prior, Prause, Colorado County Attorney Jay Johannes, Colorado County Emergency Management Coordinator Chuck Rogers, Rogers’ deputy, officials with the Colorado County Groundwater Conservation District, and Lower Colorado River Authority were present in Columbus for a meeting led by Prause and organized, at his request, by the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
In Texas, county judges are vested with the ultimate responsibility for emergency management within their counties under the Texas Constitution; TDEM reports directly to the governor.
Prause said between 30 and 40 people were present for the meeting in the county courtroom.
In spite of the number of people present for the meeting, Prause said answers were few and far between. He said his questions were often met with silence, so much so that staff from TDEM even tried to cajole TCEQ staff in to responding to his questions, to no avail.
“My primary two questions to all of the agencies yesterday was, number one, tell me at this point in your investigation, what the substance is in Skull Creek that appears to be black, and whether or not it is a threat to public health and safety, or to livestock and wildlife,” Prause said
“I also made it clear that I was not trying to rush or influence their investigation,” he said. “I did not ask them to reveal anything that would negatively impact their investigation and only stressed I was trying to get answers as to the nature of the substance in the creek and whether or not it was dangerous,” he said.
“After about an hour of repeated questions from me, and from Captain Miller at OEM, I got absolutely nothing in response to those two questions,” Prause said.
“They could not or would not give an answer,” he said.
“I asked them to give me a date on the calendar when all of the hurdles that the TCEQ said had to occur before results would be known and would be available to me. I could not get a date on the calendar from them,” he said.
Prause’s experience mirrors that of The Citizen, which has on no less than four occasions asked TCEQ, RRC, and Texas Parks and Wildlife for the same information with no concrete reply.
Prause says the agencies’ lack of responsiveness has put him in an untenable position as the county judge and chief emergency management officer for the county.
“I would say the only thing worse than the unknown substance in our creek and the lack of direct answers I have been requesting regarding the impact on public health and safety, livestock, and wildlife, is the bureaucratic soup I found myself in yesterday during this meeting and the bureaucratic lack of finger pointing and total lack of candor in response to our questions,” Prause said.
“That is the only thing worse than the toxic soup we find in our creek,” he said.
“It makes me feel absolutely horrible that I cannot know, when questions arise, whether or not there is a threat or imminent threat to public health and safety, because one of my constitutional roles is that o chief of emergency management in our county,” he said.
Prause said he was also shocked that the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, one of the first agencies on the scene, and whose authority extends to fish and game animals, failed to test any samples of dead fish from the creek from the first incident of pollution in early February.
“If I understood correctly, it was because, at that time, a potentially responsible party had not been designated,” he said.
He characterized TPWD’s statement it didnt’ test the fish for that reason “one of the most astonishing responses from them,”
Prause said the county has made every resource at its disposal to the agencies involved—from the county’s $30,000 search and rescue drone to the resources of the county attorney’s office. He said the county’s drone piolt even spent a day with the TPWD Game Warden Sgt. Echols, who was leading the investigation.
No one involved in the investigation has asked County Attorney Jay Johannes for assistance with search warrants or subpoenas, either, Prause said.
“What surprises me is after more than a month an a half of investigating, they can’t answer fundamental questions such as whether the black substance is dangerous or not or what the components are,” Prause said.
“In my nine years in elected office, I have never witnessed more bureaucratic chaos.
Two bright spots, Prause said, were State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) and State Rep. Ben Leman (R-Anderson). He said the two legislators have been helpful and supportive of the county’s efforts.
He did, however, ask county residents who feel as he does, that state agencies are failing the county, to consider letting the legislators know.
“At this point, I feel that contacting our representative and senator who have extended their hand and time to me whenever needed to convey their fair and loss of faith in the agencies who are supposed to protect our natural resources would be a good move,” he said.