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City says Sixth Street oil tank almost 100 years old

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 by Austin Monitor

After weeks of research, staffers in the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department have identified the owner of the underground fuel oil tank that leaked back in January, sending fuel oil into the alley behind Sixth Street and eventually into Waller Creek. The tank was originally connected to the Littlefield Building, the city’s second modern high-rise.


According to Thomas Bashara with the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, the key document in their extensive search was found in the minutes of the Austin City Council meeting from Dec. 8, 1910. “George Littlefield petitioned Council to put the tank and a pipeline in the alleyway,” he said. “We’re fortunate that Mr. Littlefield was prominent, he was very above-board with everything. He was the eight or ninth person to get a permit to put a tank under ground. Prior to 1909, there was not a permit process.”


While the state now regulates underground storage tanks, in the early days of the 20th Century, that task was left to municipalities. Bashara said the city’s research revealed that “prior to 1909, there was not permit process.” But a large fire at the Tips Foundry and Machine Company in 1904, Bashara said, helped prompt the first regulations. “They had a fire, it was a fuel oil, and when they went to put water on it, they spread the fire,” Bashara said. “After 1909, the city said we need to be more aware of what’s in the ground and what kind of fires we’ll be fighting.”


George Littlefield died in 1920, and the building has changed hands several times since then. It is currently managed by CB Richard Ellis, Inc. Bashara told In Fact Daily the city’s legal department had been in contact with the owner about the cost of the cleanup, although no definitive agreement has been reached. They’ve been very friendly,” he said. “There’s no criminal action here.” The city has estimated the cost of the cleanup from the fuel oil spill at over $200,000.


In the meantime, it will be up to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to decide what to do with the empty tank, which is still in the ground in the alley behind Sixth Street.

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