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USGS study points to parking lot contaminant in Barton hillside

Wednesday, April 28, 2004 by

New report verifies earlier city staff conclusion about PAH contamination

Scientists with the US Geological Survey have reached the conclusion that the most likely source of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) contaminants in the hillside above Barton Springs is coal-tar based pavement sealer used on parking lots. Now the City of Austin must decide whether to ban use of those products in the Barton Springs Zone or other sensitive areas.

The conclusion confirms what City of Austin staff have believed since last year when the Austin American-Statesman published articles based on the theory of one scientist, that the high level of PAHs were caused by buried waste from a coal gasification plant that shut down in 1928. PAHs were found in high concentrations in a ravine adjacent to the Barton Hills Park Place Apartments. The Statesman stories were so sensational that City Manager Toby Futrell closed Barton Springs Pool for 90 days of testing and discussion. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 20, 2003; Jan. 24, 2003; Jan. 29, 2003; Jan. 30, 2003; Feb. 20, 2003.) PAHs are “the biggest class of suspected carcinogens,” according to the USGS report. Authors of the report were not available for comment.

Yesterday, Nancy McClintock, chief of the Environmental Resources Management Division of Watershed Protection and Development Review, said, “It’s nice solid corroborating data,” for conclusions the city had reached last year. McClintock said city scientists have been working with the USGS, Texas State University in San Marcos and Columbia Environmental Research Laboratory in Missouri “to look at the toxicity of this particular form of PAHs in the aquatic environment.”

McClintock said she is not sure how long it will take to gather enough data to suggest that the City Council enact a ban on the coal-tar based sealants, but she said she expects to make a report to the Council “within a month or so.” She said she believes the data gathered by USGS and city scientists makes “a very tight case,” against the coal-tar sealers. According to the report, those doing the study analyzed data from a number of different types of sealants by using the product on parking lot test surfaces and washing the material off to see what contaminants would result. In addition, they tested parking lot runoff from existing parking lots throughout the city.

According to McClintock, those who manufacture the suspect product are very concerned about its possible toxicity. One local producer “went out of business when this whole thing happened. They were very concerned,” she said, adding, “The people who worked there (at the business) are working with us on our continuing research. The guy who does local applications advises people not to use it in the Barton Springs zone.”

A number of manufacturers sent representatives to Austin to find out what the city has learned about the PAH levels in runoff from coal-tar based sealants, she said. “Most manufacturers of the coal-tar based sealants make alternative products which are asphalt-based.” That product contains “some PAHs but many, many times less than the coal tar products, which are very potent,” she said. McClintock said she has alerted the Environmental Protection Agency to the problem since it has nationwide implications.

According to the study, a level of 22,800 micrograms/kilogram is likely to have an impact on small aquatic life, such as snails, larvae of mayflies and other species that the Barton Springs Salamander depends on for food. The average PAH concentration from parking lots currently in use was 3.5 million micrograms/kilogram for those with coal-tar based sealants, 620,000 micrograms/kilogram for asphalt-sealed lots and 54,000 micrograms/kilogram for unsealed lots and concrete lots combined.

City Manager Toby Futrell, who never wavered in her support of the watershed protection staff, told In Fact Daily, “It shows me what an extraordinary staff we have. Think about a municipal staff that would make that kind of connection and draw national attention to that kind of a problem—It’s unparalleled.” She said the report did not surprise her. “I have enormous confidence in the kind of work they (the staff) do. What spectacular investigative work . . . It’s almost unheard of at a municipal level. We’re very lucky.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “This report offers further confirmation to the City’s original theory. There are many challenges still facing us, however, in the struggle to preserve Barton Springs. Contrary to the theme of the Statesman series, the pollution in Barton Springs is being caused by development – not by alleged long ago buried waste. We face a very hard struggle in keeping that pollution from getting worse as the area grows. This is particularly true because growth is spilling into outlying areas that do not have the level of protections that Austin has. That is what makes the regional plan effort so critical and also what makes conservation acquisitions like the one celebrated last week so important.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken said he believes it would be a good idea to ban the use of the offending parking lot sealant. “My church had to close the children’s playground and had to do some expensive remediation in the soil where the kids played,” he said, because of PAHs in the soil next to the parking lot.

El Concilio joins Republicans in opposing hospital district

Multi-Ethnic Chambers of Commerce to announce support today

It was ironic that one group likely to benefit from the Travis County Hospital District came to Commissioners Court yesterday to oppose that same hospital district.

The eastside neighborhood political group El Concilio will not be supporting the creation of a hospital district, a subdued Gavino Fernandez told the Commissioners Court. Fernandez said East Austin residents had exhausted their financial resources and could no longer endorse the creation of another bureaucracy.

No doubt timing was a part of that decision. Fernandez pulled his own property tax bill from an envelope, telling commissioners most East Austin residents had seen a $100 to $200 increase on their tax bills for each of the last 5 years. Some senior citizens were being priced out of their own homes, Fernandez said.

“We can no longer support raising our taxes as the answer to all issues,” Fernandez said. “We will vote against the creation of a hospital district.”

Frances Martinez, who addressed commissioners in both English and Spanish, said the increase in taxes was the main reason for opposing the district. Many residents, and especially elderly residents, had no money left after paying taxes. Martinez is also a member of El Concilio.

El Concilio and the local LULAC chapter held a forum on the hospital district on April 1. After the hearing, the individual neighborhoods were polled on their positions, Fernandez said, and their bottom line determined how they voted.

Poor people in Austin cannot afford any additional tax increase, Fernandez said. El Concilio is asking county commissioners “to go back to the drawing board and bring back a more fiscally responsible and equitable plan that will address the increase in health care costs.”

The East Austin neighborhood groups want the city and county to consider increasing their contributions to health care, rather than creating a new entity.

The Travis County Republican Party too has voted to oppose the hospital district, calling the current legislation “flawed.” The party’s study committee suggested that the city and county already had the funds to address the health care problem and suggested that a portion of Capital Metro funds be redirected to growing health care issues. The party also questioned the May election date and the county’s control of the district, the same issues raised by hospital district opponent Don Zimmerman.

Instead, the Travis County Republican Party suggested that the region work harder to create new jobs. That would address the real issue, which is the number of residents who do not have health care insurance. The party said it was “arguable” whether a health care district would create greater efficiency and pointed to the high praise directed to Austin’s Indigent Care Collaboration, calling it a viable alternative to the district.

The Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, has passed a resolution in support of a hospital district, citing the growing number of uninsured residents in Travis County and the need to equalize funding between city and county residents. Under a health care district, funding would be more efficient, accountable and transparent.

Austin’s Mutli-Ethnic Chamber Alliance (MECCA) will hold a press conference at this morning to announce their support for the hospital district. MECCA is a coalition of the African-, Asian, and Mexican-American Chambers of Commerce. Representatives will make their announcement at Huston-Tillotson College just outside the student union at 9:30am.

County Judge Sam Biscoe had scheduled a discussion on the issues surrounding the hospital district, but that discussion was delayed a week. The hospital district proposal goes before voters on May 15. Early voting begins today.

El Concilio will host a “get out the vote” rally on May 1. The rally, at 4pm, will be held at the HEB Grocery Store on 7th Street, Fernandez said.

Practically a party . . . Last night’ s Planning Commission meeting attracted a larger than usual crowd of development lobbyists. Many of them were among those interested in the fate of the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan. Spotted at the meeting were Jerry Harris, Nikelle Meade, Richard Suttle, Sarah Crocker, Michael Whellan, Mike McHone, John Joseph Jr. and Jeff Heckler . . . Troopers . . . The Planning Commission was still discussing that neighborhood plan as the clock struck 1am today . . . Early voting starts today . . . Election time is upon us once more. Beginning today, residents of Austin can cast their ballots in elections for the Austin Community College Trustees, Austin Independent School District, City of Austin Special Municipal Election– applicable to firefighters, which establishes collective bargaining rights–and the Travis County Healthcare District . . . AFSCME working on endorsement. . . Representatives of the union for city, county and state employees reportedly met with Council Member Betty Dunkerley yesterday to come to an agreement about a resolution that would make them comfortable endorsing the proposed hospital district. Union members have been uncomfortable because the city has not yet assured them that all current employees would retain their jobs once the keys are turned over to a new entity . . . Hammond in hospital . . . Zoning and Platting Commissioner Clarke Hammond is in St. David’s Hospital after a bout of high blood pressure. We wish him a speedy recovery . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Environmental Board will hold a special meeting at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The only item on the agenda is a briefing on the proposed annexation of Robinson Ranch. Discussion and action is scheduled for next week . . . The Ethics Review Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 16.117 of Two Commodore Plaza

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