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Members of the Environmental Board this week urged officials with the Austin Water Utility to diligently pursue alternative sites for the proposed Austin Water Treatment Plant No. 4. Utility Director Chris Lippe and several other staffers were there to provide an update on the project to the Board. Between now and October, the utility and its outside consultants will be assessing possible locations other than the land current owned by the utility near Lake Travis.

Monday, July 25, 2005 by

“The site selection can include more than one owner,” Utility Director Chris Lippe told the board. “If there’s one large enough, that would be preferred. It would make the acquisition simpler. We are looking at multiple-owner sites.” To survey those locations, Utility officials could use GIS mapping, aerial photographs, and other publicly-available information to seek out locations large enough and close enough to Lake Travis to handle a water treatment plant capable of processing more than 50 million gallons per day. “We know we need to do a pretty thorough investigation,” said Lippe. “The site that we have right now has been studied extensively…and so obviously, before we can move very far forward on any site, we’ll need to catch up in terms of doing some detailed environmental assessments.”

The next update on the project before the City Council is scheduled for October. Lippe said that the utility would probably not be in a position to make a final site recommendation at that time, but would be in a position to recommend a possible alternative for more detailed study. “I think by October, we’ll be in a great position to talk about a couple of sites,” he said, “and present in better detail what are the steps for further investigation of a site that looks really good.”

Board members queried the staff on some technical specifics of the project, including items related to boring the tunnel that will connect the plant to Lake Travis and some of the details of a recent RFQ put out by the utility.

Several Board Members said their goal was to ensure that the existing site was not being given preferential treatment in the site analysis or in the bidding process. “I want to make sure that everyone in this is committed to obtaining the adequate amount of information, the right information, taking the time to do it right, so that a meaningful comparison can be made between potential sites and the site that we have right now,” said Board Chair David Anderson. “I know that we have parallel tracks and I think we really need to be careful about one getting ahead of the other to the point where some locations could be discounted.”

“I think you’ll find we’ll do the most thorough job that can be done with available information,” Lippe assured them. “I don’t think we would exclude a site prematurely. I think it’s going to be on the conservative side in terms of sincerely looking at alternative sites.”

Some of the most serious financial questions about the project came from Bill Bunch with the SOS Alliance. The group has been skeptical of claims by utility officials that the plant is necessary to meet the city’s growing demand, and has instead urged more conservation to deal with that projected increase. Bunch accused utility officials of improperly changing their cost estimates for the project, saying that the most recent study by an outside consultant showed a dramatically increased cost compared to the estimate provided in 2001. “I don’t know how you can explain that any way other than bad faith,” Bunch said. “I hope that somebody will get some better explanations. We really need to avoid building this plant if we can.”

Lippe said the numbers mentioned by Bunch were not an “apples to apples” comparison. “We’ll be getting back to you with a good comparison,” he promised.

The staff of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department says it could be ready to present recommendations to the City Council for regulating coal tar-based parking lot sealants by the beginning of 2006. Staff members told the Environmental Board last week that while their research in conjunction with the United States Geological Survey showed that those types of sealants were contributing to levels of PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that could prove harmful to the environment, additional study was needed before moving to regulate the widely-available products.

“We are going to spend a little more time thinking about that issue and getting some peer review from the biological work before we make a proposal to Council on that,” said biologist Nancy McClintock, assistant director of WPDR. “When we make a proposal we want it to be a very defendable proposal. This is not like many products or many pollutants across the country that there are decades of data about. The information and the data on this particular pollution source came from Austin. So we need to feel very good and very strong about it and be proposing to Council something that is very defensible. We expect to get peer review of this data of the biological work sometime this fall.”

That data is being published in an article in the August issue of Environmental Science and Technology ( and is already available on-line ( and

Researchers told the Environmental Board that tests conducted on and near parking lots covered with coal tar-based sealants showed sometimes startling levels of PAH’s. In some cases, said Layla Gosselink with WPDR, the levels were so unusually high that lab workers initially thought there was a testing error. After confirming that the results were accurate, Gosselink said, they then attempted to track the source of those chemicals. “If you look at this, it looks pretty obvious where it’s coming from. There are no other sources in that area, so we started looking at parking lots,” she said. The department estimates that about 13 percent of the area’s creeks and streams have levels that reach the “probable effect concentration,” or the level at which aquatic organisms can be affected.

As part of the research project, scientists with the USGS did studies to try to determine the source of those PAH’s. “One of the real questions that we had, and that the sealant industry people had, is that there are a lot of different sources of PAH’s in the urban environment…including cars, asphalt itself, tires, and brake pads,” said Pete Van Metre with the USGS. But those other sources, he said, were accounted for in the study results, which compared results from locations near sealed parking lots from those from unsealed parking lots. “All of those other sources are represented in these lots right here,” he said. “There are cars driving in these lots. What we’re seeing is a two order of magnitude increase in concentration in what comes off the coal-tar sealant lots.”

Researchers also used a process known as “chemical fingerprinting” to determine the source of the PAH’s they found. “There are many different PAH’s, and they’re all chemically related but they’re somewhat distinct and they occur in different mixtures in different source materials,” said Van Metre. “When we plot them, we can see if they show differences between the different sources.” Van Metre said chemical and statistical analysis of those samples also pointed to the conclusion that the PAH’s came from coal tar-based sealants, not other sources.

Board members praised the WPDR and USGS staffers for their efforts. “You should be recognized for excellence,” said Chair David Anderson, “showing some environmental leadership both locally and nationally to bring the issue to prominence now. I think this is a remarkable achievement that shows how serious the city is about protecting our creeks and streams and our natural environment, and it’s an opportunity to educate the rest of the country.” WPDR staff will return to the Environmental Board with another presentation before going to the Council with any recommendations.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Political musings . . .It’s in-between political seasons, and that means lots of talk about who may be running for what office next election. One rumor making the rounds recently is that former Austin City Council Member Brigid Shea would like to run against Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. Shea, currently an environmental consultant and a founding member of the SOS Alliance, tells In Fact Daily that after careful consideration, she will not be running for that seat. However, she said she would be looking for a “strong Democrat” to back for a run for Precinct 2 . . . Of course, if whispers around the courthouse have any validity, Sonleitner’s seat could be up for grabs next year if the incumbent decides to run for County Judge. Sonleitner, who has held the office for 11 years, is said to be considering a run at the job currently held by Sam Biscoe, but has not announced her political plans either.. . Another name that has surfaced in recent weeks as a possible candidate for Biscoe’s seat is recently retired Council Member Daryl Slusher. Slusher has only been out of office for a few weeks, and is being tight-lipped about any future political plans. . . Mayor Lance? . . . Speaking of future political candidates, Austin’s favorite son, Lance Armstrong, received a ringing endorsement recently from former Democratic Presidential Nominee Sen. John Kerry. The Massachusetts Democrat told the Associated Press, "What's made him so special at the Tour de France, and as an athlete, is the level of focus, discipline, intelligence, strategic ability, and obviously, his endurance – his ability to just take it on and go," said Kerry, an avid cyclist and longtime fan of the Tour de France. "I think he'd be awesome, he'd be a force.“ Kerry did express one minor misgiving: Armstrong’s close ties to President Bush. “I just hope he runs for the right party," he said. Armstrong has not ruled out a career in politics. . . Meetings . . . There are a few meetings of interest at the city today. The Affordable Housing Subcommittee of the Bond Advisory Committee meets at 3:30pm in room 1101 at City Hall. The Electric Utility Commission will meet at 6pm at Town Lake Center Assembly Room, 721 Barton Springs Road. The Capital Metro Board meets in a work session a 4pm at the Capital Metro Headquarters, 2910 E. 5th Street. Labor relations is on the agenda, after Cap Metro’s drivers’ union voted last week to authorize a strike unless an agreement can be reached soon on a new contract. . . . County bond public hearings . . . Beginning tonight, Travis County residents will get a chance to have their say over the proposed $115 million bond package proposed by the Citizens Bond Advisory Committe e. Tonight’s public hearing, for residents of north and northeast Travis County, is scheduled for 7pm at the Pflugerville Justice Center, 1611 E. Pfennig Lane. Other hearings are set for central county residents at 6pm Tuesday at the T ravis County Commissioner’s Court Chambers at 314 West 11th Street; for southeast county residents at 6:30pm Thursday at Baty Elementary School (Cafeteria), 2101 Faro Drive; for east county residents at 6:30pm, August 3 at the Travis County Precinct One Satellite Service Center, 9301 Johnny Morris Road; and for west county residents, at 6:30pm August 4 at the Precinct Three Travis County Office Complex, Building A, (Community Room), 8656 SH 71 West. For more information, contact Carol Joseph, Travis County Transportation & Natural Resources at 854-9383.

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