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EPA has mandated change for health and safety reasons

Monday, May 20, 2002 by

The Environmental Board voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend conditional approval of an ordinance that’s being drafted to meet the terms of a mandate imposed on the city by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because the city has had an average of about 25 sewage spills a month, some causing serious problems, the EPA has told the city to fix the leaks by the end of 2007 or face fines of up to $27,500 a day for each violation.

The Administrative Order (AO) from the EPA to stop the sewage overflows by December 31, 2007 was imposed on the city on April 29, 1999. The ordinance currently being drafted would allow a streamlined process for approving variances required for construction on sewage system repairs and upgrades. City officials deemed this necessary because the normal process for variance requests would take so much time it would jeopardize meeting the timeline imposed by the EPA.

The Austin Clean Water Program (ACWP) was created to eliminate illegal wastewater spills—or sanitary sewer overflows (SSO)—and facilitate coming into compliance with the EPA mandate on schedule.

Bad budget season could affect plan

Being forced to act within a compressed time frame may create budgetary headaches, but it’s a boon for the health and safety of citizens, especially those who reside near the city’s urban creeks. The EPA mandate was prompted by the Brushy Creek overflow in July of 1998, when a spill of 170,000 gallons of untreated wastewater caused an estimated 1,300 people to become ill.

Moreover, the need to speed up work on wastewater infrastructure can provide an avenue to steer more funding towards badly needed improvements in the city’s urban watersheds, as outlined in the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department’s (WPDR) 40-year, $800 million Watershed Protection Master Plan.

“I think this project comes along at a very opportune time, now that the Master Plan is completed,” Joe Pantalion, an assistant director with WPDR, told the Environmental Board last month. He said his department can combine efforts with the Water and Wastewater Department (WWW) and “we can share data to make it a better project in the end.”

Vice-chair Tim Jones agreed. “We would like to see a combined effort,” he said, to fix the creeks while fixing the sewer lines. This will save effort and expense in the long run, he noted. “I just see this as a really good thing for both (WPDR and WWW).”

He suggested staff consider putting in detention ponds upstream instead of walling up creeks. Since WWW will be helping to fund some of WPDR’s projects, he urged the departments to work together to provide long-term solutions to problems in the urban watersheds.

At last month’s meeting, Board Member Ramon Alvarez said because funding is so tight right now, “Herculean energies need to be made to find the synergies here.” He suggested the departments “identify where the overlaps are and get going . . . it will be the right thing to do for the city.”

After a presentation to the Board last month by consultant and former City Council Member Brigid Shea and city staff, Chair Lee Leffingwell sent the matter to subcommittee to craft a recommendation. “My biggest concern is there will no doubt be construction in the creeks.” He said there were real health and safety concerns involved, so there is strong need for administrative oversight and collaboration. “I want to make this program work,” he said, not only because of spills but also because of the many algae blooms in the creeks.

Streamlining process until 2007

The proposed ordinance pertains specifically to streamlining the process for granting construction variances. It would allow administrative variances on projects that are part of the EPA’s AO, thus sparing the usual board and commission reviews and lengthy variance approval process. The ordinance is slated to expire at the end of 2007 when the AO expires.

A city document in support of the ordinance states the ACWP AO projects are “predominantly sewer remediation projects. These projects will include rehabilitation/replacement of existing lines in their existing locations.” Because sewer lines often rely on gravity, and up until the mid 1980s had been placed along creek beds, much of the rehabilitation work will be done in environmentally sensitive areas, thus requiring multiple variances.

Mary Arnold, a former member of both the Environmental Board and the Water and Wastewater Commission, said, “It’s very exciting for me to see these departments working together.” However, the proposed ordinance is very short, she said, and “it needs to be more specific.” She pointed out it was only a two-page ordinance, and “just to have the two pages is a little bit minimalist for the magnitude of what we’re doing here.” She said she was pleased with the collaboration, but the city needs to “make sure there is a meaningful opportunity for citizens to appeal.”

The Board’s motion for recommendation, authored by Leffingwell, calls for minor changes in the ordinance along with requests to increase funding “to facilitate stream bank and bed restoration in accordance with the priorities defined in the Watershed Protection Master Plan where these restorations can be efficiently and economically performed in conjunction with Austin Clean Water Program projects. Those funds may be used to construct upstream detention facilities for more effective stream bank stabilization in a larger segment of the creek.”

The motion also recommends that the City Council consider additional funds to support WPDR staff increases that will be required to administer the ACWP.

Board recommends quick public notice

In addition, the “Board recommends that reports on variances approved by the Director be made public and made available to the Environmental Board within 48 hours. This is necessary to ensure timely public notification prior to actual construction.”

The Board’s rationale for the recommendation states: “The Board strongly believes that many creek repairs outlined in the Watershed Protection Master Plan and not directly affecting sewer line integrity could be performed concurrently with the mandated repairs at significant monetary savings and with minimized riparian disturbance. Thus, when a funding source for the sewer repairs is identified, that source should be expanded to simultaneously fund rehabilitation of the creek itself (beyond that necessary to protect line repairs alone), and should include upstream detention facilities where necessary to ensure long-term stream bank stability.”

The vote was 5-0, with Secretary Karin Ascot and Board Members Susana Almanza, Ramon Alvarez and Connie Seibert absent.

City’s best-known transvestite complains about cops. . . Leslie Cochran, who wanted to tell the City Council about police harassment, arrived at the Council meeting a few minutes after Thursday’s early adjournment. Decked out in three-inch spikes and a red mini mini-skirt, Cochran came in carrying a large cardboard sign proclaiming: “In Austin we have a lying bully wearing an Austin Police Department uniform telling me that Austin’s City Council has written an ordinance that nullifies the U.S. Constitution! Imagine that! P.S. This is not an abandoned vehicle.” City Manager Toby Futrell wanted to know the details. Cochran said an officer had told him his sign was illegal and a second officer had issued a “warning” to him. When Futrell saw the small piece of paper proffered by Cochran she explained that it was not a warning but a copy of a field observation memo. Such memos help the city to find out whether a particular officer “is stopping only African-Americans,” for example, she said. However, after Detective Mike Sheffield, who was watching the exchange from a short distance, relayed to Futrell the appropriate phone number, the manager told Cochran to call of Police Monitor Iris Jones about the problem. Cochran said he would. Then, Cochran noted that he would soon exchange his skirt for a bikini. Futrell asked him to do her a favor—not to start bikini season until she is ready to wear hers . . . City Council appointments . . . Last week the City Council appointed Michelle Brinkman, Teresa Ferguson and Joan Ternus to the Downtown Commission . Each represents another commission on the panel. In addition, Council reappointed Cindy Garcia, Hanna Riddering, Joseph Trochta and Michael Voticky to the Airport Advisory Commission. Timy Baranoff, Patricia Ann Bell, Debra Thompson and Jill McRae were reappointed to the Child Care Council. Joining them will be new appointees Michele Deitch, Yolanda Edwards and Jeannette Peten. Mae Marion Harris was appointed to the Library Commission and Michael Candelas was appointed to the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee . . . Traffic alert for Round Rock . . . The City of Round Rock Police Department has announced that officers will step up patrols in response to citizen complaints about speeding in neighborhoods. The program, dubbed “Children at Play in Round Rock” begins today and runs through June 3. The Department hopes to increase public awareness of speeding problems in neighborhoods as children go on summer vacation and play more often outside . . . Scenic Austin wants you . . . To stop putting political signs, or other “litter on a stick” on the public right-of-way and utility poles. The anti-billboard group also has announced an ambitious legislative agenda for its state counterpart, Scenic Texas: stopping the construction of all new billboards on roads throughout the state; mandating that one percent of TxDOT construction budgets be devoted to landscaping with native plants; and making Texas the 49th state to join the National Scenic Byways Program . . . Kitchen “Reproductive Choice” Event tonight . . . Jack and Staley Gray are hosting a fundraiser for Democratic State Rep. Ann Kitchen from 6 to 7:30pm tonight at 3212 Gilbert St. in Tarrytown. For more information, call 306-1270 . . . Oops . . . In Friday’s early edition, we reported that Republic Square Park is moving forward with the backing of the Austin Parks Foundation and the Downtown Austin Alliance. We neglected to include the vital involvement of the City of Austin, with PARD taking the lead, along with Redevelopment Services and Transportation, Planning and Sustainability. The Texas Commission on the Arts' contribution will be through an agreement with the City (not APF). The City Council approved a resolution regarding the TCA agreement on May 16.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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