About Us

Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism

Arsenic level applied by Statesman would end swimming in state waters

Thursday, April 17, 2003 by

As state and federal agencies worked overtime to complete a final report on the health of Barton Springs, Council Member Daryl Slusher released his second report on Barton Springs and Barton Creek yesterday, saying, “The springs are safe for swimming now, but we’ve got a lot to do to keep them that way.” He added that city staff members have been reporting deteriorating water quality in the springs for years, but the Austin American-Statesman has consistently downplayed and minimized those reports. This year, however, the Statesman looked at data, most of it gathered by city staff, “and took this huge leap to a conclusion that you could get cancer,” from swimming in Barton Springs Pool.

Slusher, a journalist before joining the City Council in 1999, begins his exposé of the Statesman’s reporting errors in the cover letter to his report. He writes that the Statesman “has run many thousands of words warning of potential cancer risks and other health dangers from swimming in Barton Springs and Barton Creek. Professional health and environmental experts from four state and federal agencies investigating the situation have rejected these assertions of long-term health risks as well as any imminent health risks. So have representatives of M.D. Anderson Cancer

Center . . .”

His letter offers an analysis of arsenic levels in Barton Springs and Barton Creek. He writes, “The following is from the March 26 Statesman: ‘In January arsenic was detected in water in the pool and in Barton Creek just up and downstream, where many people wade and swim. While arsenic is a naturally occurring metal, it was found at levels exceeding the human health criteria for water used for recreation, fishing and drinking . . . If the criteria referred to by the Statesman is an indicator of whether swimming is safe, then Texans better forget about swimming as a way of cooling off during our five months of summer. That’s because the criteria cited by the Statesman is only a fraction of the level of arsenic that occurs naturally in Texas waters. The actual readings from the pool and creek were on the low end of the natural level of arsenic in Texas waterways.”

The readings cited by the Statesman, .5 parts per billion (ppb), were found once in the pool and once in the creek. “Dr. Michael Honeycutt of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) says the natural levels of arsenic in Texas water range from .1 ppb to 5 (no decimal) ppb.” The Statesman, however, used a standard of .018ppb. That standard, Slusher reports, “is an EPA number mainly concerned with aquatic life consumption, in particular the safety of eating oysters—which filter water at phenomenal rates. Honeycutt says the EPA puts out such a number to help states in determining permitted discharge levels. The TCEQ surface water standard level for arsenic is 50 ppb—although Honeycutt says this level is likely to drop to around 10 ppb when standards change in 2005 or 2006.”

In addition to the section on arsenic, Slusher’s report analyzes data and interpretations from the Texas Department of Health on levels of lead, PAHs, the pesticide heptachlor and mercury.

On Wednesday, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), as well as the TCEQ were working on the final report proposed by Dr. John Villanacci, director of the Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology Division of the Texas Department of Health. Saturday marks the 90th day since City Manager Toby Futrell closed the pool, and the scientists are trying to finish the report in time for the pool to be reopened this weekend.

Slusher’s report, based on data gathered by state and federal agencies as well as city employees, reaffirms information discussed at a forum held by the MD Anderson Cancer Center last month—that the pool and the creek are safe for human use.(See In Fact Daily, March 28, 2003. ) To read the entire Slusher report, click here. Part 1 of Slusher’s report can be found by following this link:

Jones calls Statesman's Barton Springs stories nonsense

The City of Austin Watershed Protection & Development Review Department (WPDR) offered a “state of water quality” overview to the Environmental Board Wednesday. The report included a comprehensive outline of various efforts to test and maintain water quality at hundreds of sites, including groundwater in the region’s numerous springs and the surface water of creeks and Town Lake.

But the undercurrent to all the discussions was debate about how to prevent “debacles” with the Austin American-Statesman, such as the spate of recent articles outlining toxic chemicals at Barton Springs.

“I see the local daily get information and run with it in a way that turns out to be nonsense,” said Board Member Tim Jones. A comprehensive report with results on water quality might prevent bad coverage that isn’t accurate, since it would preclude bits of data being misinterpreted, he said. The report gave a detailed look at how we monitor, but not an overall picture of what it means, Jones said. “I would like to see what the fruits of your monitoring are,” he said

David Johns, who works with the groundwater team at the WPDR, stressed, “We have a long list of things we do at Barton Springs.” Some monitoring equipment takes readings every 15 minutes, targeting possible contaminants that produce the fatal gas trauma, or “bubble” disease, in the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, he said. He added that this data might be eventually transmitted real time to the web.

Despite all the attention on Barton Springs, city officials emphasized that numerous other springs are monitored and likewise need protection from pollutants. Common pollutant problems include stormwater runoff, effluent sprayed on golf courses and other areas, and the herbicide attrazine. In addition, the monitoring is used to meet numerous standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also at issue was who conducts, examines and stores the monitoring data. The city has a vast amount of such data, said Ed Peacock. That data will soon be accessible on the web via search engines, instead of the current method of requesting information by form. “We’re definitely not keeping any data to ourselves,” he said. However, coordination of work with the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, the United States Geological Survey and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is now a priority, he said.

Nancy McClintock, heavily criticized in the Statesman’s editorials over how water quality data was obtained and presented, noted that, “The storm of that whole issue is not quite passed.” To prevent future problems, she recommended formalizing coordination with the other monitoring agencies and defining harmful levels before those levels are reached. “What would the levels be . . . which would trigger greater concern. Let’s talk beforehand to set certain criteria,” she said.

Group endorses Wynn, Alvarez and Clarke

The Austin Women’s Political Caucus (AWPC) voted last night to endorse Will Wynn, Raul Alvarez and Margot Clarke after questioning the candidates about their positions on such issues as women’s healthcare and the relationship between the City of Austin and the Seton Healthcare Network on the operation of Brackenridge Hospital. The group did not issue an endorsement in the Place 6 race.

While much of the focus of the AWPC was on reproductive choice, representatives of the four major mayoral candidates used their time to address other issues. The candidates themselves had agreed not to attend the forum in person in deference to mayoral candidate Brad Meltzer, who was unable to attend because of family obligations related to the beginning of Passover.

Meltzer’s representative read a prepared statement that outlined his pro-business and “no new taxes” platform, but did not deal with the issue of women’s healthcare—the primary concern of caucus members. Meltzer also did not return the group’s questionnaire.

Christian Archer, with the Will Wynn campaign, stressed the candidate’s support for reproductive choice, mentioning his activities with Planned Parenthood. And in what could be a preview of the final weeks of the campaign, Archer warned audience members not to believe what he called “empty campaign promises” from other candidates vowing to cut taxes while avoiding layoffs. “We’ve been recently attacked by Marc Katz who has said he wants a 15 percent homestead tax cut, and then says, ‘We’re going to cut a million dollars out of lobbyists.’ He’s going to take a $77 million shortfall . . . (and) increase it by $19 million, but cut $1 million in lobbyists,” he said. “Just do the math.”

Katz’s representative, John Birdwell, hinted for the first time that the candidate had a plan to recoup some of the money from his proposed homestead tax exemption. “You will see new sources of revenue . . . there will be other entities that come in,” Birdwell said. “We’ll look at new revenue streams. Certain businesses might possibly be looking at taxes, to not be specific.”

Place 2 Council Member Raul Alvarez said he considered the city’s women’s hospital at Brackenridge Hospital the most important and successful project regarding women’s issues. When asked about emergency contraceptives, he said he would follow up to make sure it is offered.

Challenger Gavino Fernandez was the first candidate to stress his understanding of women’s issues. “I am from a family of eight; of those eight, seven are sisters . . . seven consultants on women’s issues.” Fernandez, who served on the Brackenridge task force, said personal biases cannot play a part in public policy. Candidate Steve Adams, a libertarian, said he did not believe a “fat, male politician should sit up in office and tell a woman what to do with her body.” Despite the applause, Alvarez received AWPC’s endorsement.

Brewster McCracken, Place 5 candidate, revealed that he and his family have a long history of being active in women’s issues, since his great-great-grandmother was one of the first women elected a delegate to a national convention. He called the city’s fifth floor hospital at Brackenridge a “travesty” and added that it was a separate and unequal “kind of medical treatment—and separate, but equal has been discredited in every other facet of our society and it needs to be that way in women’s policy.” A member of Planned Parenthood, McCracken said he has a lot in common with fellow candidate Margot Clarke. Candidate Jason Pate said he too supported Planned Parenthood. But Clarke received the AWPC endorsement after a runoff with McCracken. Clarke was the first Public Affairs Manager for the Austin Planned Parenthood and has actively supported women’s and environmental issues.

Place 6 candidate Wes Benedict said he also was pro-choice and for women’s issues, but failed to convince what he jokingly called “the Margot Clark campaign.” The AWPC voted not to endorse anyone for Place 6, which is currently held by Danny Thomas.

The caucus has lost much of its strength in recent years, which was especially evident when the votes were counted. There were 32 voters in the first heat of the Place 5 race, but only 14 remained for the runoff. Most of McCracken’s supporters had long since left the forum.

Wednesday, Thursday,


Katz press conference today . . . Mayoral candidate Marc Katz is holding a news conference in front of his restaurant on 6th Street at 10am today. John Birdwell told the audience at the Austin Women’s Political Caucus forum on Wednesday that Katz had obtained information about the possibility of a major reduction in the city workforce this summer. “We really believe and have credible sources that we will have massive—not large, but massive—layoffs of people, and cuts in services the second week in June,” he said. City Manager Toby Futrell told In Fact Daily, “I don’t know where this is coming from . . . We have been very open since the early forecast work sessions that we would have to have service cuts and we would probably have layoffs,” due to the drop in sales tax and property tax collections. She was adamant that “nothing is happening in June” . . . Extra meeting . . . County commissioners have scheduled a work session at 1:30pm Thursday that will include five topics: the annual financial audit, the ongoing flood mitigation plan, the county’s storm water drainage program, road and bridge consolidation and a briefing on the civil indigent attorney fees . . . City-county meeting canceled . . . The joint city-county subcommittee meeting, scheduled for Friday afternoon, has been canceled. There is no City Council meeting today . . . Austin Symphony presents bass . . . Nikita Storojev, who has appeared in the world’s major opera houses, concert halls and international festivals, will sing with the Austin Symphony Friday night at 8pm at Bass Concert Hall. There will also be a pre-concert talk at Bass starting at 7:10pm. For more information, call 476-6064.

© 2003

In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.


Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top