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Ullrich plant contractor won’t meet deadline

Friday, January 27, 2006 by

City issues notice to cure warnings; firm responds with ‘doomsday’ risk analysis

A contractor working on the expansion of the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant—asked repeatedly by city officials to explain delays in completing work on the project—has responded with an unsolicited “risk analysis” report on the handling of toxic gases at the plant, written by a company that primarily sells gas detection equipment. The work is being done as part of a project to expand the capacity at the water treatment plant, which is located on Redbud Trail near Tom Miller Dam.

Archer Western Contractors, which won a $61 million contract in 2003 to expand the plant, received two “Notice to Cure” warnings from the city last year for failing to meet the specifications of the contract . Later in 2005, an inspection of the chlorine building indicated unacceptable tank welds and contamination of the chlorine feed system. The city has hired an additional firm, Freese and Nichols, Inc. of Fort Worth, to assist in analysis of scheduling and other issues that may arise in completion of the project, said Jay Ulary of Public Works. Ulary is the city's Project Manager on the plant.

City officials say the sequence of events represented in the risk analysis commissioned by Archer Western represents a “doomsday scenario” that is not likely to occur with the safety systems the city has in place. Archer Western did not respond to repeated calls for comment. The company which performed the analysis, Calcon Analytical, Inc. of Dripping Springs, also failed to return calls.

According to documents obtained by In Fact Daily, Archer Western has failed to meet numerous deadlines on the project and will not finish upgrades to the plant by the February 28 deadline promised in its contract. The city is expanding the plant from 100 million gallons per day to 160 million gallons per day in treatment capacity.

At a December meeting with city officials, instead of addressing its problems and delays on the project, Archer Western presented the alarming risk assessment report related to the storage and use of chlorine gas at the Ullrich plant. City management has produced a detailed response challenging the report’s conclusions and questioning the qualifications of the company Archer Western hired to do it.

According to the report by Calcon Analytical, the quantity of deadly gases stored at the Ullrich site poses an “enormous safety and environmental hazard” to residents in the area and to the city as a whole. It says the amount of chlorine stored at the Ullrich plant, about 96 tons, could “kill thousands of people as well as contaminate the waters of the lake and the aquifer” if proper safety measures are not put in place.

In its report, Calcon does not allege that such a scenario is likely to happen due to any problems or deficiencies with the Ullrich plant, but outlines the potential danger if a worst case scenario were to occur.

The report notes that as many as 68,000 people would be directly affected in the event of a failure of the system that contains the chlorine, and that twice that number would have to be evacuated.

While the introduction and conclusion take up only three pages of the eight-page report, the balance of the document is spent on raising questions with the city involving safety issues surrounding the plant

City officials say they take the report seriously, but are confident that the plant’s design is safe.

“We feel we have a very safe facility; we're making it safer,” said Deputy City Manager Joe Canales. “We've worked with the police department, the fire department, the homeland security task force. We've let everyone know what we have, how were going to construct it, and why we’re doing some of these things.”

He said in addition to that, the city has brought in a specialist in managing chlorine.

“We’re confident that we have an excellent facility. We want to reassure the residents of the area, our public safety and support employees that we have taken every measure to ensure that we have a safe environment for everyone,” Canales said.

Assistant Fire Chief George Blackmore and Special Operations Chief Greg Nye wrote in their response to the report: "While we take all of (Calcon’s) assertions from a sober and a critical professional point of view, in our opinion they nonetheless represent a doomsday scenario never before seen in recorded history. "

They point out that water treatment facilities throughout the world use the same type of bulk chlorine storage as the city is proposing. Use of the new 48-ton tanks will make operations at Ullrich safer, they write, by eliminating more than 100 connections/disconnect ions each week. Such connections reduce worker involvement and therefore reduce the risk of a leak, according to the city.

Calcon’s credibility was also called into question. Assistant City Attorney Gordon Bowman noted in a memo to Council Members that a search for information on the firm did not indicate any expertise in the field of risk management, only the sales and service of gas detection equipment. Bowman notes that the city did not request the report, was not consulted in its development and was given no opportunity to review or comment on it.

Bowman also noted that Calcon’s request for a copy of the security plan for the plant—which is generally unavailable to the public—demonstrated that the company has an unsophisticated grasp of public safety planning. He added that the company’s publishing the approximate location of the chlorine building was “simply irresponsible.”

The deadline for substantial completion of the plant was February 28 but Archer Western says the planned date for correcting its defective work is June 1, with completion estimated to be on July 1. City officials say they are not confident that either deadline will be met. Project manager Ulary told In Fact Daily that the planned expansion might be done sometime in the fall.

There remain unanswered questions about why Archer Western would commission such a report—which was not requested or sanctioned by the city—at a time when the city was pressing the company to answer why it had not completed work on the plant to the satisfaction of the city.

Aquifer board declares drought

BSEACD revises rules for determining drought stages

Board members of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District voted last night to change the criteria used to determine what conditions in the underground river will trigger a drought alert. Immediately after making that change, the board used the new criteria to declare the aquifer to be in an “ Alarm Stage Drought.”

The Alarm Stage Drought regulations, which include a mandatory 20 percent reduction in water use by all customers, will go into effect on February 6.

Agency staff has been working for several months to revise the BSEACD’s rules and bylaws, in some cases making minor technical corrections and in others—such as the drought triggers—making major changes in the way it operates.

Previously, the BSEACD monitored five different wells in the aquifer’s recharge zone and used formula based on water levels as criteria to determine if a drought stage, or trigger, had been reached. But under new regulations passed by the board last night, a low level reading at either or both of two measuring stations can trigger a drought declaration.

Those two stations include the aquifer depth at the Lovelady drought indicator well near Buda and the water flow rate at Barton Springs. An Alarm Stage Drought is triggered if the water level in the Lovelady well falls below 180.8 feet, or if the water flow at Barton Springs drops below 38 cubic feet per second (CFS) for 10 consecutive days. To trigger the more severe Critical Stage Drought, Lovelady levels must fall below 192.1 feet and the flow at Barton Spring must be below 20 CFS

According to BSEACD staff, Lovelady is just above drought stage at 179.3 feet, but the Barton Springs flow has been at 31 CFS for some time.

General Manager Kirk Holland suggested that because the new criteria had just been put into effect, that the board’s drought declaration be made effective in 10 days “or unless we have a flood of biblical proportions before that.” Board members agreed and voted to put the aquifer on Alarm Drought Stage beginning February 6.

Transit union to strike Monday

New mediator will meet with StarTran, union on Sunday

A new federal mediator will step in this weekend to help facilitate contract talks between StarTran and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091. The union which represents Capital Metro bus drivers and mechanics has announced its members will go on strike at 12:00noon on Monday if they have not reached a contract deal by then.

“We want a contract that’s decent for our employees so we can put this thing to bed and go back to doing our jobs like we were before without all this stress,” said Local 1091 President Jay Wyatt. The union has been working without a contract for the past several months, and talks between labor and management have been growing increasingly tense. The two sides will sit down with a federal mediator at 1pm on Sunday for a meeting which Wyatt said would have no pre-conditions. “We didn’t want to go to the table with us having to make a move before we got there,” said Wyatt, “That’s what the game has been: in order for them to go back to the table, we have to make more concessions. We’ve said we believe that we’ve given up enough and it’s time for us to stop giving and to bring this thing to an end.”

Sunday’s meeting will not include representatives from the Community Advisory Committee, an ad-hoc citizens group formed earlier this month to offer to facilitate talks between the two sides. While union representatives have welcomed the group’s participation, officials with StarTran have said they would prefer to stay with the federal mediation process.

Capital Metro officials are hopeful that a strike can be avoided, but are also planning for the possibility that Local 1091 members will stop work Monday afternoon. The agency will turn to its other sub-contractors to help operate some routes. Union officials say their members will continue to offer rides during a strike to special-needs passengers who have medical appointments.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

BTS enters plea . . . A company that formerly helped minority and women-owned businesses bid on City of Austin contracts has been convicted of making illegal corporate campaign contributions to several Texas candidates, including candidates for Austin City Council. Bonding and Technical Services of Texas, Inc. will have to pay a $100,000 fine after entering a plea before District Judge Jon Wisser. According to a statement released by the Travis County District Attorney’s office, “the candidates had no knowledge of the source of the contributions.” The DA’s office looked into the campaign contributions as part of an investigation into possible fraud in the city’s contract with BTS, Inc, but did not file criminal charges related to that contract . . . Moriarty blasts management . . . Former Austin Clean Water Program manager Bill Moriarty appeared before the City Council on Thursday to reiterate many of the allegations regarding sewer spills that he made in his lawsuit against several top city officials. Moriarty spoke on an agenda item approving funds for the design of the Downtown Wastewater Tunnel project, which will improve wastewater collection downtown. After Moriarty’s allegations that the city’s drinking water was at risk because of the possibility of a sewage spill into Town Lake, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas called on Deputy City Manager Joe Canales for a brief response. “All those concerns have been shared with TCEQ and EPA, and they are ready to assure the citizens of this community that the City of Austin Water Utility is doing everything it needs to be doing to be in compliance with, if not exceeding their standards,” he said . . .The Council awarded the contract to Parsons Water & Infrastructure, Inc… . . Zimmerman fundraiser . . . Dr. Jim and Gina Hansen are hosting a fundraiser for Don Zimmerman, Republican candidate for State House District 50, at their home tonight on the issue of medical malpractice. Special guests include Congressman Ron Paul, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Travis Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, from 6:30 to 9:30pm tonight. Call the campaign for details . . . Kim seeking new assistant . . . Just as she was settling into her job as Executive Assistant to Council Member Jennifer Kim, Heidi Gerbracht has gotten a new job in Baltimore. Kim said yesterday that Gerbracht would be leaving to start her new job by mid-February. She is hoping to find someone as qualified as Gerbracht, a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs . . . Plug-ins in the news . . . The Plug-in Partners news conference in Washington DC Tuesday got the coalition, and the City of Austin, some national attention. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 25, 2006) A search for “plug-in hybrids” on the Google News search shows major media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and the Associated Press ran stories about the coalition’s plans to boost production of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. A large number of auto industry media, including Edmunds, Auto Week, Motor Trend, and the American International Automobile Dealers Association, also covered the story . . . Commission split on EOC . . . Williamson County Commissioners have approved spending $48 million to build a countywide emergency operations center. On a 3-2 vote commissioners voted this week to issue $48 million in bonds for the facility. The vote was split along the line of those on the court who were and were not running for re-election. Pct. 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman and Pct. 3’s Tom McDaniel voted against it, saying the county does not have a firm grip on the cost of the project. Some Williamson County police chiefs are also opposed to project. The EOC would provide a central dispatching system serving various emergency agencies responding to 911 calls. Those agencies currently do their own dispatching.

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