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City Manager Toby Futrell announced yesterday that she would close Barton Springs Pool for 90 days because of “the kind of sensational dialogue that is just naturally going to occur” as a result of the “Toxic chemicals taint Barton waters” story in Sunday’s American-Statesman. However, the city believes that the Statesman misapplied the methodology for determining the level of human risk. Futrell brought four outside experts, plus members of city staff, to assist in making her point that levels of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the pool are not harmful to human health.

Monday, January 20, 2003 by

The city will continue to gather and assess data on toxic pollutants in soil, water and sediment in and above the pool and will ask two federal agencies to assist in that assessment. Futrell said she would not hesitate to swim in Barton Springs Pool herself—if the temperature were higher.

“I would not have closed this pool based on our own calculations,” Futrell said, “but I do think the coverage today raises enough fear,” to warrant the closure while the community examines the data. “I am doing it because I don’t believe we can have a responsible and reasoned dialogue if the debate is over whether or not to close the pool. In order to open up the focus for us to get to the bottom of this, I’m going to close the pool for 90 days.” Asked by a reporter whether the city was fighting with the Statesman, Futrell said no. However, the newspaper appears to be criticizing the city’s interest in preserving endangered species and has implied that the city should instead concentrate on threats to human health—threats which the city denies.

Futrell said prior to seeing the Statesman’s coverage she had made a decision not to close the pool, but once she saw the coverage—7 or 8 pages of ink—she knew that the level of anxiety would be high. So, “rather than spend any precious time arguing or debating about whether to close the pool,” she decided to do so while the community is digesting the complex and easily confused scientific data. She said she was especially concerned that the story would confuse people because it referred to the highest level of toxics ever measured in the sediment, which was in 1995. Although that information is present in the story, Futrell noted, “dates are conspicuously missing for the bulk of the article (and) locations are interchanged.” City workers have sampled every three months since the high 1995 measurement, she said, and have never found that level again.

The Statesman theorized that toxic waste from Austin’s 19th century coal gasification plant is the source of pollutants in soil upstream from the pool—just below the Barton Hills Park Place apartments on Barton Hills Drive—and in sediment in the pool. The newspaper showed an aerial photo of the area from 1940 indicating a gravel pit at the site where the complex now sits. Futrell said there is, so far, no evidence to support that theory.

Nancy McClintock, chief of the Environmental Resources Management Division of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR), said the city has taken samples from city property below the apartment parking lot that lead her to suspect that a coal tar based pavement sealer is responsible for the PAH pollution.

Mike Heitz, director of WPDR, told In Fact Daily, “We only found pollution in the top 15-18 inches, but not further down.” Heitz said the evidence contradicts the newspaper’s theory about the site being backfilled with waste from the coal gasification plant. “We’re saying this tar sealant is made of that same material and you can buy it at any home building supply company and that’s where we think the pollution is coming from.” Asked whether this might be a nationwide problem, Heitz said yes, adding that other cities are not doing the same amount of testing that Austin is doing.

John Villanacci, director of the Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology Division of the Texas Department of Health, addressed the issue of sediment contamination, saying, “The fact that there are contaminants in the sediment, whether it’s upstream or downstream, does not necessarily mean there’s a health risk. The health risks are associated with how you’re exposed to those contaminants. We looked at what types of exposures people might have when swimming in this pool. When you swim, you probably do swallow some water. I’d like to preface that with: contaminants have not been found in the water. The way you’d be exposed to contaminants in this scenario would be through sediment in the water.”

“The types of contaminants we’re talking about are in your everyday diet. The extra risk you receive, the theoretical risk, is incredibly low. It’s much, much lower than you would receive in your normal, everyday diet . . . All of the data that I have seen indicate that even if someone were to ingest sediment every day for the rest of their life, the risk that’s associated with the level of PAHs in the sediment would not be significant.”

The city will be asking for assistance from both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Futrell said. While the pool is closed, regular Barton Springs swimmers can swim at Deep Eddy Pool, which Futrell ordered opened as a result of the other pool’s closure.

Attending Sunday’s press conference were Mayor Gus Garcia and Council Members Daryl Slusher, Will Wynn and Jackie Goodman. Garcia pointed out that the city’s land purchases were not only to save endangered species, but also to protect Austin’s water quality. Slusher said the threat of contamination “really accents the need for a regional plan. We should avoid using this evaluation period to further any preconceived agendas.” Wynn said he supported the city taking the action to determine whether there was a health risk and the possible extent of it.

Goodman told In Fact Daily she hoped those studying the scientific data could put aside political motivations, adding that she thought the Statesman may have applied the wrong standards to data. Longtime environmental activist Tim Jones said the Statesman “may have opened a line of information that may be very helpful.” He said PAH contamination is a problem throughout the Barton Springs zone. “PAHs are one of the most serious components of runoff.” The information could lead to an acceleration of the city’s plan to retrofit roadways and parking lots, so that contamination from those sources would no longer flow into the aquifer, he said.

Contacted after the press conference, Jon Beall, president of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA), said, “I think the city in their pursuit of more information deserves credit for finding out some of the details we were not aware of. The city has, to the best of my knowledge, not been hiding anything. We need to wait for more facts on this. Pointing fingers is premature.”

Futrell emphasized, “We do not believe we have a clear and present danger to human health. It is true that this sampling was based on environmental sampling and endangered species protection. Part of this discussion is about looking at our endangered species as an indicator of when there are going to be problems later for human health, so it’s always been part of our analysis.”

Political unknown Brad Meltzer jumped into the mayoral race on Saturday. It’s the first run for elected office for the Boston-born businessman.

“Back in 1986, I decided we needed a better quality of life for my family,” Meltzer said. “And I researched Austin and I decided to come down.” Since then, Meltzer has been involved with pharmaceutical company Lexis Laboratories and currently owns a Benihana Restaurant and 15 apartment complexes. Many of these are in northeast Austin. He began buying up properties in the early 1990’s, eventually purchasing the Westheimer Apartments under a city-sponsored low-interest loan program.

Meltzer says his business experience and his service on the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Committee have convinced him the city needs to do more to promote affordable housing. “In the last week, 9 apartment complexes have been foreclosed in northeast Austin,” he said. “There’s trash all over the place, there’s gas being shut off. I feel bad for those property owners. I feel bad for those tenants. Some properties pay very high taxes . . . we need leadership to find a way to freeze and lower these taxes. We need to bring in more business to bring in more employment and sales taxes.” And his business experience, Meltzer says, would prove especially valuable as the city faces a budget crunch. “I know how to read financials, I know how to set up budgets and I know how to put in internal controls,” he said. “I know efficiency. I have not laid off any employees, ever.”

Meltzer outlined several other positions at a weekend news conference at the Renaissance Hotel. He opposes a strict new no-smoking ordinance being drafted by Mayor Gus Garcia’s office. He wants to streamline and accelerate the process of obtaining city inspections for businesses, and he would like to find a way to encourage city employees to live within the city limits. “I’m not going to put new regulations on city employees that move out of the city,” Meltzer said. “But why don’t we give our city employees a property tax break, so that they know they are being appreciated?” He also backs the zero-based budgeting program endorsed at the state level by Texas Governor Rick Perry last week. “I agree to that, except for education, police, security and people that work for code enforcement,” Meltzer said. “Certainly, essential employees cannot be laid off.”

Although Meltzer has been active in Republican circles, receiving the National Leadership Award from the Republican National Committee, he also cites his support for current Mayor Gus Garcia, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher—all Democrats. He serves on the board of the American Red Cross of Central Texas and is chair of the Disaster Fundraising Committee. He joins Council Member Will Wynn, former Council Member Max Nofziger and perennial candidate Jennifer Gale in seeking the mayoral seat.,

, Thursday, Friday.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

City offices closed today . . . Hope you got the day off too. The Zoning and Platting Commission and the City Council are off this week. The Resource Management Commission will meet on Tuesday and the Planning Commission will meet on Wednesday . . . TAB to give information to grand jury . . . The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Sunday that the Texas Association of Business has decided to hand over information subpoenaed by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Earle is seeking the names of donors to the TAB fund for campaign ads targeting Democrats last fall. He is investigating whether the association violated the state’s election laws. The newspaper said TAB chief Bill Hammond has agreed to testify before the grand jury.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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