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Thursday, February 20, 2003 by

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THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2003

Pollutant tests could lead to more stringent regulations

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is testing sediment samples from Barton Springs Pool to determine whether toxic chemicals could be harming the aquatic species that the Barton Springs salamander eats. Senior toxicologist Michael Honeycutt said the agency tests involve exposing the tiny creatures, called hyallela, to whatever toxic substances are found in the sediment.

Honeycutt said the city had lowered the pool for cleaning, so scientists took advantage of that opportunity to take samples. He said he has gotten thousands of different numbers from various tests, so it will “probably take several more days to write a report.”

Honeycutt reiterated that the agency believes that neither the springs nor the creek poses a danger to human health. But that does not mean high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as well as other pollutants, are not having an impact on various prey species, and correspondingly, on the endangered salamander. The City of Austin asked TCEQ to put Barton Creek on its list of impaired waterways more than four years ago, but the agency did not do so because the water quality was good. “We had listed Barton Creek as a concern,” because of the PAH levels, Honeycutt said. “The sediment testing was on our list of things to do to do.” Because of all the publicity surrounding the creek, the agency has now put that testing on the top of the list. “This hullabaloo did elevate it; we are getting lots of calls to list it,” Honeycutt said.

One of the loudest calls comes from the Save Our Springs Alliance. SOSA spokesman Brad Rockwell said, “It’s wonderful that the TCEQ seems to be doing some sort of investigation to see if Barton Springs and Barton Creek should be listed.” He said he understood that a lack of funding was one reason why the agency did not respond more quickly to calls that the creek be listed as impaired. “Part of the problem is that TCEQ has been delegated all these federal programs over the years but they don’t receive extra money from the Legislature to pay for the extra staffing that would be needed to implement these programs,” Rockwell concluded.

Honeycutt explained that if the agency finds a high level of toxicity, it may put the creek on the impaired list. Tests would continue to determine the pollutant level for all pollutants, known as TMDL (total maximum daily load). “We would look at how much contamination is in the creek and what it would take not to list it.” If contamination must be reduced, he said, “It kicks in more stringent discharge requirements for that watershed.”

Panel passes resolution in support of city

The Environmental Board offered its own judgment on the results of the city’s investigation of Barton Springs Pool last night, passing a resolution of support for the city’s actions.

In some ways, the presentation to the Environmental Board was anti-climatic. It comes almost three weeks after the results were presented to the City Council. The citizen panel was thorough in its investigation. Passing the Environmental Board is like passing a final exam.

Many of the commissioners had highly specific questions about the process the city used to test sediment and core samples. Chair Lee Leffingwell asked whether the endangered salamander was the canary in the coalmine. No and yes, said John Villanacci of the Texas Department of Health .

No, the salamander is not a predictor of what humans might experience in Barton Springs Pool because its physiology is so different. On the other hand, the city wouldn’t be testing the water at all if the endangered salamanders weren’t present in Barton Springs.

“We wouldn’t be here—we wouldn’t have even known these contaminants existed—if we hadn’t done the testing here,” Villanacci said. “From what I understand, it really is unique, something others don’t do because they don’t have an endangered species.”

The dialogue between the Environmental Board and the team, led by Nancy McClintock, chief of the Environmental Resources Management Division, lasted almost two hours. Two recommendations came out of the discussion: the city should explore whether coal tar sealants are being used on its projects and stop private developers from using coal tar sealants.

Commissioner Phil Moncada asked whether the city had looked into what sealants were being used on projects. McClintock said the sealant is not being used on city projects, with the possible exception of the airport. The city is still checking with sub-contractors who do maintenance for the city.

Leffingwell asked whether the city had made any effort to change codes to stop private developers from using coal tar sealants on parking lots. McClintock said it’s too soon to tell. The city’s Legal Department is still exploring whether the city has a right to stop the use of the sealant. And there are still too many unanswered questions about what the test results might mean. McClintock says it’s still uncertain just what the test results reveal about toxicity to humans. The United States Geological Survey has put some money forward to analyze the data.

McClintock says the city has not treated the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) results lightly. Just because it’s not a significant health risk does not mean it’s not something the city is continuing to test and assess on various watersheds, he said. Recent publicity has put the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) issue on the radar screen. The city is in the process of working with a consultant who will provide recommendations on remediation.

Commissioner Mary Gay Maxwell wanted to make it clear that the recent death of a salamander in the pool is not tied to the sediment issues. McClintock explained that the salamander death was due to gas bubble trauma. The super saturation of the water causes tissue expansion in some animals, and, in the case of the salamander, possible death. McClintock was comfortable in her assessment that the salamander’s demise could not be attributed to any other significant chemical problems.

Nofziger web master says he was only a volunteer

It could be a failed dirty trick in the race to be Mayor of Austin, or maybe just a clash of cultures. Will Wynn’s c ampaign manager, Mark Nathan, isn’t sure, but says the actions of candidate Max Nofziger’ s web master “feels like (a dirty trick) to me.”

Nathan says he was contacted by email last week by Terry Walhus, web master for austinmayor.com requesting campaign materials and participation in an online debate. After that, Nathan says, he received an email alerting him that Walhus was also listed as the web master for Nofziger’s web site, maxformayor.com. A check of registration shows Walhus listed as administrator and technical contact for both sites. Nathan says Walhus indicated to him that the mayoral web site would be impartial. But last week’s entry from Walhus on his site, http://www.spring.net, touted Nofziger as “the only really viable candidate in the upcoming Mayoral election . . . He’s the only one with the actual experience of shepherding Austin out of a bust and back to economic well being.” That message was replaced this weekend with one that says Walhus is no longer part of the campaign and no longer supports any candidate. However, the date on both entries is identical—7:16 on Jan. 8, 2003.

After learning about the connections between Walhus and the opponent’s campaign, Nathan received another email from Walhus asking for campaign information. He responded by email to Walhus yesterday: “Frankly, I’m offended by what appears to me to be an effort by you and your campaign to trick the other candidates—and, even more disturbingly, the voters—into believing that your web site can be trusted as a source of unbiased information . . .”

Walhus told In Fact Daily that he worked for Nofziger as a volunteer. “He never hired me,” the web master said, adding that he has turned control of Nofziger’s site over to another person. “I found it was so constricting working for a campaign . . . I’d never really gotten involved (in a campaign) before,” he said. The Nofziger campaign wanted tight control over the messages on the site, which was not to the web master’s liking.

The Nofziger campaign did not return a call from In Fact Daily.

Community to have neighborhood scale offices

Dozens of east-side residents gathered along with City Council members and Congressman Lloyd Doggett on Wednesday for the ground-breaking ceremonies for Eleven East. The mixed-use development at East 11th St. and Waller St. is a project of the Austin Revitalization Authority and will include office and retail space. Some market-rate town homes are also planned for the street.

Mayor Gus Garcia said the project was important to bring an economic boost to the city’s east side. “We cannot ignore parts of the community that have been ignored in the past,” he said. “When I came to the university here in the 1950’s we used to drive down this street . . . then I saw the area go down, and it made me very sad. The African-American community and the Hispanic community here have contributed so much. So I’m here to say thanks to all of you . . . this is the beginning and it will get much bigger as we look at what we’re doing east of I-35. East Austin will not be a community that will have the terms “slum” and “blighted” attached to it anymore.”

ARA officials hope the three and four-story buildings will attract new business to the area, yet on an appropriate scale. “We’ll be bringing more workers to the area, more services to the area,” said ARA President Byron Marshall. “The community didn’t want a regional stop . . . they wanted something that was neighborhood-scale, but would allow people to come over and do small-scale offices . . . bring some prosperity into the neighborhood and create jobs.”

The project is expected to cost $11.4 million. The City Council approved a $4.4 million dollar loan to the ARA for the project in December of 2002, and the ARA has a $7 million loan from JPMorgan Chase Bank. Construction is expected to take about 14 months.

Wentworth does it again . . . Unsatisfied with the progress Austin has made in providing uniform subdivision regulations in its extra-territorial jurisdiction, Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) has introduced legislation that would give subdivision authority to counties with populations of more than 700,000. He sponsored a bill in 2001 that directed cities and counties to consolidate development regulations by April 1, 2002. Austin did not meet that goal. In Fact Daily will report more on this later . . . Budget talks today . . . The City Council will hear the latest grim news in budget and revenue projections beginning at 10am today at the Zilker Garden Center . . . Police monitor celebrating . . . The city’s Office of the Police Monitor celebrated its first anniversary on Feb. 11 and is busy compiling statistics for the first annual report. The office opened with only a clipboard, complaint forms and a pencil last February and has taken 273 complaints since then . . . SAWS agreement study time expanded . . . The board of directors of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has agreed to extend by six months a study plan development phase for water sharing with San Antonio Water Services. The project envisions a seven-year study plan. General Manager Joe Beal said, “Significant work went into developing different facets of the study plan in a relatively short time and now we need to look at the project as a whole to make sure it ties together properly.” He praised the work of members of the public and promised that the agency would continue to receive input from stakeholder groups. The studies are being done to generate information on environmental as well as economic consequences of the water sales to San Antonio . . . Running for Mayor . . . Chistopher Keating has filed to run for Mayor of Austin.

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

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