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Officials from federal, state agencies stress pool is safe for swimmers

Friday, March 28, 2003 by

“That whole series of articles is grossly misleading,” said City Manager Toby Futrell yesterday, referring to the American-Statesman’s continued front-page stories about the safety of water at Barton Springs and adequacy of work done by city staff and state and federal agencies seeking to resolve questions the newspaper has raised.

Most of the citizens in attendance at last night’s forum on the safety of Barton Springs seemed to agree. One woman who identified herself as a swimmer asked, “What can be done now to hold the American-Statesman liable for their misreporting?” which she said had caused damage to the City of Austin and to Austinites. Her question received applause, as did one from Colin Clark of the Save Our Springs Alliance. He said, “Every time it rains, these contaminants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs) wash off the roads,” causing pollution of the waterways.

“We’re all here because of the power of the media,” Clark said, then asked Statesman reporter Kevin Carmody, who was taking notes, why the focus of the articles has been on the possibility of a buried coal gasification plant—the newspaper’s theory about the cause of the pollution. Why had they ignored the dangers posed by runoff from coal-tar-surfaced parking lots? Why had they not looked at nonpoint source pollution, which is documented as being a bigger source of pollution?

Carmody responded that the stories speak for themselves. His answer was greeted with hisses.

The messages from yesterday’s story were twofold: that the city is withholding data and that the amount of time, energy and money being spent to analyze the data is insufficient, Futrell told In Fact Daily. The newspaper alleged yesterday that state investigators have been “using incomplete and incorrect data,” and that “the missing data show that elevated levels of benzene-based compounds have been found in sediment in Barton Springs Pool twice as often as city officials have told the public.”

That statement is misleading for several reasons, Futrell said. The data the Statesman is referring to is not city data, but data from other agencies—a fact revealed in a single sentence much later in the story. “We’re being held accountable for not turning over other agencies’ data,” she said. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that more than one sample was taken on one day. The city reported finding high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on two dates, not reporting one sample that showed a lower PAH level, Futrell explained. One of the other samples not being considered, she said, was taken by a federal agency in 1997. It was not put into either the federal agency’s database or the city’s, she said, because it had not gone through the quality assurance procedures necessary to verify that the sample was tested correctly. Records of two other samples were not given to state and federal scientists because the level of PAHs shown was about half of the highest samples. “So if we had left it in, it would make the data look better, not worse,” she said.

In another instance, the city was faulted for not reporting data from the US Geological Survey, which monitors very low levels of pollutants at Barton Springs to determine whether salamander habitat is toxic for the tiny amphibian. Futrell said the agency works slowly and has not released some of the data, while other data is being fed into the city’s database as it becomes available. She noted that the various federal and state scientists looking at possible pollution of the pool and Barton Creek have “27,000 data points from over a decade” to consider. The fact that a handful of data did not make it into the investigation does not indicate a conspiracy on the city’s part, said the City Manager, who is clearly frustrated with the Statesman’s continued attacks.

Futrell described the watershed protection staff as “the most honest, hardworking people in the city,” who have been “brutally honest” in their assessments of the decline in water quality of the city’s creeks. She also said the newspaper has mischaracterized the current evaluation of data that state and federal officials are conducting as “quick and dirty.” The current consultation is being done because that is the starting point of any analysis of pollution, she said. Futrell said she was skewered for using the word “assessment” in her first news conference in January. Little did she know that the word is a term of art that describes a longer process than a consultation. Futrell said the agencies decide whether the full-scale assessment is needed through the consultation process.

In Fact Daily asked Dr. John Villanacci, director of the Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology Division of the Texas Department of Health, whether he had received enough data from the city. He replied, “We’ve received data from the City of Austin, USGS, TCEQ and the LCRA. We probably have all the data we need.” Villanacci added, “The title (headline) of yesterday’s article implies that we’re changing directions. That was erroneous. We have not changed.”

Villanacci stressed, as did the other experts at the forum, that the pool is safe for swimmers. He said he and others working on the consultation are trying to finish the report by April 19, the 90th day after closing of the pool by Futrell.

During the forum, a number of swimmers in the audience said the pool should be reopened before the report is completed. They said they would like to swim on at their own risk. Futrell said she could not open the pool until the final report is done because of the “incredibly serious questions raised on the front page of the paper.” There are, no doubt, legal reasons for keeping the pool closed also. However, she told the swimmers, “I’m at the point myself that when it hits 90 I’ll jump the fence with you.” She also promised swimmers that once the pool is open admission would be free for some period of time to repay them for their patience.

Most changes to limit industrial uses near residential area

The City Council gave final approval Thursday to the Govalle/Johnston Terrace Combined Neighborhood Plan and a slew of accompanying zoning changes. The area is bounded on the north by Oaks Springs Road, Airport Boulevard and the Austin & N.W. Railroad, on the east by U.S. Highway 183 (Ed Bluestein Boulevard), on the south by the Colorado River and on the west by Pleasant Valley Road and Webberville Road.

Many of the zoning changes implemented in the plan are intended to limit future or increased industrial uses, particularly in neighborhood settings and near schools. “We’re basically addressing the injustices of 75 years ago,” said Mayor Gus Garcia. Where zoning changes were made, current uses were grandfathered to make them legal, so property owners could continue with the same business in the rezoned areas. However, property owners with warehouses and other commercial uses had contested the planning process and zoning changes in some instances, complaining that limited uses would hurt business prospects or future returns on investments when trying to sell the land and facilities.

The plan also offers more general recommendations and future needs for land use, transportation, recreation, economic development and other issues affecting the neighborhoods.

The overall plan was approved by a vote of 6-0 on third reading with Council Member Raul Alvarez abstaining, since he resides in the Govalle area. Four individual tracts of land considered for zoning changes are still under consideration and further action was postponed.

Alvarez did vote on a handful of Council motions needed to override valid petitions on specific lots, most dealing with industrial uses. The Council voted 7-0 to approve staff recommendations in each of those cases. Alvarez said he felt a fairly good balance was reached in meeting the needs of property owners, who must ensure their current uses are legal, and neighbors, who want to limit traffic, pollution and other detrimental effects of industry.

“One of the most important aspects of the East Austin neighborhood plans will continue to be how to treat Limited Industrial zoning and balance the interest of landowners with the interest of neighbors,” he said.

One key area in the plan was defined as a “Mixed Employment District,” an area with a large amount of industrial and manufacturing businesses with approximate borders of East Seventh Street, East Caesar Chavez Street, Tillery Street, East Fifth Street and Springdale Road. Alvarez said he would have preferred that the Limited Industrial Services (LI) zoning be downzoned to Commercial Services (CS), but in the end he went with the recommendation of the neighborhood planning team and agreed to a mix of LI and CS for the area..

City wants compensation; commissioners divided

Travis County Rep. Todd Baxter is getting mixed reviews on his bill to use Proposition 2 lands as a credit toward the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP), even among his former colleagues on the Commissioners Court.

Baxter presented House Bill 1837 to the House State Cultural & Recreational Resources Committee earlier this week. Baxter said the parameter and scope of his bill was simple: to review conservation easements purchased by city and county as a credit toward the BCP.

The proposal also elicited a mixed reaction from Commissioners Court on Tuesday, although it was championed by Baxter’s replacement on the court, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. Commissioners did not all agree that Prop 2 lands—purchased by the City of Austin for water quality—should be used as a credit toward a preserve intended to save the golden-cheeked warbler. The commissioners questioned whether such a move would mirror the intent of the county’s voters.

The city-county compact to create the sensitive BCP is 86 percent toward completion. Baxter wants to present Prop 2 land purchases to the Environmental Protection Agency to be evaluated as possible credit on the proposed 36,000-acre preserve. The unnecessary delay caused by failing to complete the preserve is diminishing the value of privately owned land in the area, he said.

Landowner Thomas Kam, who owns land in the area of the preserve, testified in favor of Baxter’s bill. Kam argued that Austin and Travis County hold 50,000 acres in combined preserve and water quality land, or 20,000 acres in “excess inventory” that could be considered for possible use as preserve territory. Kam called the separation of the two lands “bogus bookkeeping” and an inefficient use of local resources. A true evaluation could even lead to a full 50,000-acre preserve for endangered species, Kam said.

“This would encourage the policing of something that is a good thing for government and for the people,” Kam said. “This will also remove, or potentially remove, landowner and ranchers’ land from being maintained for inventory for this plan without any compensation and without any input.”

Kam said the completion of the BCP would not stop the city from acquiring more land for additional preserve space. The bill would simply encourage the city to assess its current inventory of land and measure it against the parameters of the Balcones Canyonlands mandate.

Environmental Attorney Amy Johnson, who is working with a group of citizens in Medway who are selling their land to the preserve, pointed out that landowners are not required to participate in the preserve and could simply buy themselves out of the BCP by purchasing participation certificates. Those credits allow the city or county to purchase land in another area.

“This doesn’t ever prevent you from development,” Johnson said. “They just pay the fee, which many landowners have done.”

Johnson’s strongest argument against the bill was to contrast the practical purpose for the two land types. To manage land for water quality, cedar on the land must be cut down to preserve the water table. To manage the land for birds, cedar and other brush should be maintained. She also noted that the water quality lands purchased under the city’s Proposition 2 funds allow bike and hike paths. The land for the BCP allows no public access.

BCP land is divided into two macrosites. Using land outside the two sites will likely require an amendment of the federal permit, Johnson said.

The passage of Baxter’s bill could raise legal issues among Austin voters and especially those who considered the creation of hike-and-bike trails to be one reason they voted for Proposition 2, Johnson said. The city’s bond issue was passed with certain covenants and obligations. No federal biologist is going to have the answer to how to circumvent bond covenant language, Johnson said.

The City of Austin, represented by Junie Plummer of the city’s Real Estate Services office in the Department of Public Works, said the city could agree to Baxter’s bill if the city was fairly compensated for any Proposition 2 land taken for the BCP. The city was not opposed to having the land assessed by a federal biologist, as proposed by Baxter’s bill.

“We don’t have an objection, as long as we are compensated for the asset taken for the BCP,” Plummer said. “That land is an asset, and we need to address that in the bill.”

County commissioners did not take a stand last week on HB 1837. They asked the county’s lobbyists and Daugherty to bring back more information on the bill before voting on it.

During this week’s hearing, Baxter said Johnson’s arguments against his bill were good ones, but that he firmly believed all decisions should be made in the light of a scientific inquiry. Federal biologists, Baxter said, should be the ones to assess whether the lands can be used for both purposes.

“I don’t disagree with the arguments, but we’re not the ones who are qualified to pass judgment on those lands,” Baxter said. “We’re not even saying you can’t have public access to these lands . . . I think those discussions could and should take place and take place at the appropriate level.”

As is frequently the case when a bill is first presented, the committee did not take a vote on Baxter’s bill.,

Thursday, Friday.

Clarke takes CAD endorsement . . . Although Brewster McCracken locked up numerous endorsements early in the campaign for Place 5 on the City Council and won the nod from Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus, the Central Labor Council and three Democratic clubs this week, Margot Clarke beat him in the contest at Central Austin Democrats this week. At the North by Northwest Democrats, neither had a 60 percent majority, according to Clarke’s campaign manager, Paula Nielson, so neither won the endorsement. The University Democrats endorsed McCracken . . . The West Austin Democrats will hold their candidate forum next Wednesday at 7 pm at the Howson Branch Library, 2500 Exposition . . . Real estate awards . . . More than 300 people gathered at the Four Season’s Hotel Wednesday night for the Austin Business Journal’ s Fifth Annual commercial real estate awards dinner. Stratus Properties was honored for best multi-use of property and Austin attorney Pike Powers won the lifetime achievement award—the first of its kind—for his service to the community. Powers, the managing partner of Fulbright and Jaworski, played a major role in attracting both MCC and Sematech to Austin. The Williamson County Karst Conservation Foundation won an award for best community impact for creating a park twice the size of Zilker that includes protection of endangered species. Kurt Vander Meulen of NAI Commercial Industrial Properties was honored for his efforts to relocate the Cedar Door. Scott Marks, a candidate for Place 5 on the City Council, received a finalist award for the Legend Oaks Project, which offers affordable housing for seniors. The mixed-income community was financed through tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs and from the State of Texas Housing Trust Fund. The project, which is in Llano County, also received a grant from the State Energy Conservation Office. Marks serves as general counsel and executive vice-president of DMA Development . . . Neighbors helping benefit . . . Austin blues diva Marcia Ball will preview her new CD “So Many Rivers” during a benefit concert on Sunday from 6-9pm at the Broken Spoke, 3201 South Lamar. The concert will benefit Neighbors for Neighbors, the community group working to stop Alcoa from strip-mining lignite in Bastrop and Lee counties. The company also plans to pump massive quantities of groundwater from the region for sale to San Antonio. Advance general admission tickets are available in Austin at the Broken Spoke, and at the independent bookstore, BookWoman. Radio station KGSR is a co-sponsor of the event . . . Mega duplex rules . . . The City Council will place the proposed new rules on “super duplexes” for a vote on next week’s agenda. Developers and homeowners in Hyde Park and the North University Neighborhood Associations gave their views on the pros and cons of the rules at a public hearing last night. While the new regulations will likely be posted for all three readings, Mayor Gus Garcia advised that “usually this kind of an ordinance takes three separate meetings.” That would still allow the new rules to be in place before the current moratorium on new duplex permits expires on May 29th.

© 2003 In Fact News,

Inc. All rights reserved.

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