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Parking lot paving product still needs investigation

Monday, April 21, 2003 by

The City of Austin spent an estimated $100-150,000 testing the water and sediment in and around Barton Springs Pool and Barton Creek, and lost $35,000 in revenues during the three months the pool was closed. Virtually all of the staff involved in watershed protection dropped other projects in order to work full-time on questions about the safety of the springs, City Manager Toby Futrell said. She had no estimate for the cost of their time, terming it “off the charts.” Members of the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department also worked on the safety question, burning scarce funds during a time of fiscal crisis. All of that data was analyzed by the Texas Department of Health and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and reviewed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The four agencies signed off on the assessment on Friday, releasing a lengthy report declaring the pool safe for daily swimmers.The report, the time and money spent was all in response to the Austin American-Statesman’s screaming headlines: “Pool, other city creeks may pose health risk,” and “Contamination worse than at U.S. hazardous waste sites” and the fears that those headlines might have generated.

But Futrell was all smiles Saturday, standing back to watch Mayor Gus Garcia and Nancy McClintock, manager of the environmental resources division of Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, cut the ribbon for reopening the pool.

Futrell told In Fact Daily, “It’s been a very painful three months for the staff. I think it’s been very painful for the community.” She did not dwell on the cause of that pain—sensational reporting by the Statesman of inaccurate conclusions drawn from water and sediment test data.

“Everyone’s been very frustrated. But we have a clean bill of health now on the pool.” Futrell said. Perhaps the most frustrating part for the staff was the fact that the water quality data they have collected over the past 12 years was used to attack their credibility as guardians of the city’s water quality. Futrell recognized that, saying that they were the ones who went through “the bulk of the agony over the past three months.” She also praised Austin citizens for their commitment to Barton Springs.

“This pool is the way it is today—pristine, safe and such an asset to this community—because of the values and the Herculean efforts of this community to keep our urban water quality the way it is—urban water clean. And my challenge is: you won’t find a major city in this country—and I guarantee you won’t find one in Texas, other than Austin—that would have the courage to test as much as we do and for as much and have the results that we have. And that’s why this pool is special and the springs is special.”

Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn praised Futrell and city staff who worked on questions concerning the pool’s safety. Wynn said he had looked at past reports on the pool, finding that it was closed 31 times in 1992—19 times because of high fecal colliform counts and once because of flooding. He also praised those sitting on the City Council during the past 10-15 years noting that the effort and money put into water quality has paid off in a much cleaner pool today. Noting one of the newspaper’s errors, using the mercury standard for eating seafood, rather than the recreational or drinking water standards, Slusher warned swimmers not to eat any oysters they might find in the pool. For Slusher’s analysis of the Statesman’s reporting on arsenic levels in the pool, click here: http://infactdaily.com/subscribers/april_17_2003.html

Mayor Garcia said, “Barton Springs is Austin and Austin is Barton Springs.” He then challenged Wynn—who was fully dressed in white shirt and tie—to take a plunge into the pool, just as he had plunged into the Mayor’s race. Wynn took off his tie, emptied his pockets and removed his shoes. After walking down a couple of steps, the mayoral hopeful vaulted over the railing into the icy pool. As he put his pager back into a dripping pants pocket, Wynn told In Fact Daily, “I think the City Manager had to err on the side of public safety.” In spite of the good news—that the pool is a safe place to swim—the Council still faces the challenge of keeping it that way, he said.

Dr. Michael Honeycutt, senior toxicologist for the TCEQ, told In Fact Daily that his agency—also strapped for cash—spent about $130,000 in supplies, equipment and testing to see whether the Statesman’s claims were true. He said it would be impossible to determine the cost in terms of staff time because “we’ve had so many people working on this.” Since January 19, the day the first stories appeared and the pool was closed, Honeycutt said, he has put more than 30 hours/week into questions about Barton Springs, Barton Creek and the hillside where the newspaper alleged a toxic waste site was buried.

Honeycutt said, the Statesman stories caused the water quality section of the agency, which had the data on PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) from the hillside and the dry tributary to Barton Creek, to turn that data over to him quickly. So the time period for analyzing it and gathering more data was significantly shortened. He said, “There probably will have to be some kind of remediation there, “but what that might involved is unknown. However, he said the area does not involve an immediate risk to health because it is not where people walk. More importantly, he said, the state and federal agencies now have been alerted to the possible risk of PAH contamination from asphalt sealing materials. He concluded, “I don’t think we would have figured out that the parking lot sealer was the problem,” if the Statesman had not claimed that a coal gasification plant had once existed on the site.

McClintock said scientists still need to ascertain whether the PAH contamination from the parking lot sealer poses a risk to human health. She and Honeycutt both said it could be a nationwide problem, which up to now has received little attention.

Single-family zoning on South Congress causes headache for landowner

The Zoning and Platting Commission this week recommended that a pawnshop owner be allowed to continue storing cars and trucks in a lot next to his business in the 5500 block of South Congress. The lot is currently zoned SF-3, which prohibits vehicle storage as a business, but will be rezoned CS-CO, if the City Council agrees with the commission’s assessment.

“My client made a mistake,” said agent Richard Crank. “It’s been here a long time, he bought it unknowingly. What he wants to do is bring it into compliance for its current use. The current use is vehicle storage.” Crank said the property owner was willing to submit a list of prohibited uses to go along with the CS zoning. “This is not a junkyard. The automobiles are fairly new boats, they’re work trucks . . . It really handles a segment of society that needs money on a different basis than going to a bank.”

ZAP Chair Betty Baker, however, cautioned against allocating commercial zoning for the site. “When I look at the reality of South Congress, it’s been an embarrassment . . . to the entire city for decades,” she said. Most of the area, according to Baker, is over-zoned. “The CS zoning across the street . . . I can’t think of anything that’s there that requires CS zoning,” she said. “I keep waiting for the day this area will improve, and if we keep introducing such permissive zoning it’s never going to improve.” She suggested lower zonings such as LR or GR would be more appropriate for the area and lead to more desirable uses. Betty Edgemond, a frequent activist on South Austin zoning issues, agreed. “We’re trying to clean up that area a little bit,” she said. “I’m against the CS zoning. Everything there is over-zoned.”

Commissioner Keith Jackson offered additional restrictions on the site as a compromise to get the CS-CO zoning approved. “I agree with you that zoning in this area is way over-done for the uses that are there,” he told Baker. “But unlike some other cases, I think this gentleman is trying to do the right thing before he’s in trouble.” Jackson proposed a condition that only 10 percent of the lot could be used for vehicle storage and stipulated that the vehicle storage could only be used in conjunction with the pawn shop. The measure passed on a vote of 8-1, with Baker opposed.

Edgemond also opposed CS-1 zoning—which allows liquor sales—in a shopping center at the corner of Stassney Lane and S. I-35. Sarah Crocker, representing the applicant, said, “Typically, this is where you’d want to locate a liquor store. This is footprint zoning . . . the most appropriate place, within a closed shopping center. Most liquor stores do try to go into a retail center because they do get a lot of crossover . . . traffic . . . a lot of people that park and go to Albertson’s go to the liquor store there. Given the size of this center—it’s only a couple of years old—this is a good and appropriate use for this location.”

Edgemond admits to being opposed to all new liquor stores in South Austin. She said there are already enough of them in the area and pointed out that there is GR (general retail) zoning in the shopping center as well. She also complained that there is too much traffic in the area, and no traffic signal to control it. The commission was not moved by her arguments, however, unanimously approving a recommendation for CS-1. A prohibition against cocktail lounge uses and adult-oriented businesses was added to the recommendation. Crocker said the area in question is far too small for a cocktail lounge and that it would require a conditional use permit in addition to the zoning change.

Sign maker spells bologna . . Max Nofziger’s new 4X8 signs proclaim that Max should be elected Mayor, but refers those interested to maxformayer.com. Perhaps the sign maker was remembering the sandwich meat jingle, “My bologna has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R. My bologna has a second name, it’s M-A-Y-E-R” . . . Early Voting continues today . . . In addition to the fixed locations, which are listed at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/election, mobile voting stations will be at Huston-Tillotson, St. Edward’s University and Services for the Deaf, 2201 Post Road today. Early Voting continues through April 29. Election Day is May 3. As of Saturday, 4,655 voters had cast ballots. All polling places were closed for Easter Sunday . . . Heritage Homes tour coming . . . The Heritage Society of Austin is alerting those interested in historic homes that the yearly tour will be in the Central West Austin neighborhood of Pemberton Heights, which was laid out in 1927 using what were then considered new and exciting patterns. It was one of the earliest examples of suburban design in Austin, with curvilinear streets, varied lot sizes and no network of alleys for garbage collection and other city services. The tour will be a week after Election Day, on May 10. For more information, call the Heritage Society or visit http://www.herigatesocietyaustin.org . . . This week’s meetings . . . The City Council will meet on Thursday, but other meetings are scarce. The Urban Transportation Commission, scheduled to meet at 6pm tonight in the 8th floor conference room of One Texas Center, has a lengthy agenda. The Arts Commission will meet at 6:30pm at the Dougherty Arts Center.

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

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