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Hidden oil tank a costly problem for city

Friday, January 25, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Damage from the fuel spill of an underground storage tank was minimized by proactive measures by the city and its contractor earlier this month, but it also raises the question: Would the city have been so lucky if Waller Creek had been full, rather than empty?


That is not just a theoretical question when you consider the $126 million the city and county are about to spend to revitalize the long-dormant and often dry creek bed.


As the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department has admitted in numerous recounts of the events of Jan. 10, the city was lucky this time: The water main break carried the oil into the storm sewer system and out to Waller Creek, but the creek level was so low the oil stopped before it reached Lady Bird Lake.


The location of the underground fuel oil tank was unexpected, but the incident was reported quickly and the city was prepared for just such a situation. There might be some long-term effects to localized flora and fauna, but the initial incident failed to cause problems typical of such an event, such as a fish kill.


At last night’s meeting, city environmental staff members Joe Pantalion, Stan Tindel and Tom Bashara outlined the steps the city took to address the fuel oil spill in the alley between the Driskill Hotel and the Littlefield Building. While the city continues to research the ownership of the tank, it already has spent more than $200,000 to a San Antonio contractor that specializes in hazardous material clean-ups such as fuel spills.


The point remains, however, that the city has no idea how many underground fuel tanks exist downtown. As Bashara explains it, these fuel tanks frequently served the city’s earliest hotels, providing luxury amenities such as heating, hot water and Turkish baths. The hotel would dig a trench and literally drop the railroad car into the hole. Then a line would be run out of the tank and into the building to use the fuel oil.  


Most of these tanks were installed long before the state required any permits or even an accounting of them, Bashara said. And to complicate the matter, the Republic of Texas eventually ceded right-of-way in alleys to owners in buildings on each side of the street by literally dividing the street in half, decades after the tanks were dropped.


So should the city be worried? Underneath the spaghetti network of fiber optic, natural gas, telephone and wastewater lines, are there multiple underground storage tanks downtown that may be ticking time bombs, waiting for the next chance to spill? Possibly, says Bashara, who has been researching downtown original Sanborn maps.


The Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee may be ready to entertain the suggestion that the city should provide a fuller survey of utilities, both old and new. Sam Archer, who chairs the WCCAC, said it would good to have that information.


“I don’t know,” said Archer when asked the question. “I think it would be helpful to understand just what we have down there. I do think that the city did a phenomenal job responding to this spill.”


The only way to really know is to bring in a geotechnical device to chart just what is underneath the ground. The city already intended to do some kind of utility survey to address the high cost of connections to new downtown development. Whether the storage tanks become part of that survey depends on the cost, said Urban Design Officer Jim Robertson, who points out that Council already has a downtown “to do” list that is far longer than the funds available.


“Phase I is intended to engage a consultant to begin a utility master plan,” Robertson said. “I’m not sure how specific that plan is going to be.”


Bidding on the consultant to draft the plan for the shores of Waller Creek closed yesterday. Next week, staff will present a briefing to Council on the Waller Creek project.

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