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City offers reward for information about Barton Springs sewage spill

Wednesday, May 12, 2010 by Austin Monitor

The Austin Water Utility and the Austin Police Department will be offering a $5,000 reward for information leading investigators to the perpetrators of a crime that endangered the environment as well as public health, according to AWU Director Greg Meszaros.


Meszaros said Tuesday that he was working not only with APD but also with Travis County’s environmental crimes division to help figure out who threw concrete chunks, stumps, construction fencing, and other debris into a sewer line in Southwest Austin over the weekend, resulting in a sewage spill estimated at 250,000 gallons.


Meszaros points out that whoever did this had a tool for the manhole cover, making it less likely that the culprits were simply aimless vandals. “They had to unbolt the manhole, they had to take out six or eight bolts, lift off the manhole cover that weighs 70 pounds, and throw the debris down there, including concrete chunks that weighed 100 to 150 pounds,” he said. It was not a five-minute job, but rather probably took 30 minutes or more.


Whoever clogged the line intended to do so and it is likely that they told someone about it. Meszaros is hoping the reward will entice someone to talk.


The ultimate impact of the sewage on the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer is unknown. And Meszaros said he does not yet know exactly how much the cleanup will cost, but he believes it will be in the tens of thousands of dollars.


“This was a very serious incident, whether it was vandalism, eco-terrorism, illegal dumping, whatever it was … if nothing more, we want to demonstrate that we treat this incident very seriously, and we want to discourage this from happening again,” Meszaros told In Fact Daily.


“I feel really good about the cleanup process itself,” he said. The department estimates it removed 50 percent of the spillage.


He said even though his department, along with Watershed Protection and the Health Department, did a good job with the spill itself, they could have done better in notifying the public.


Private well owners were not notified about the spill and the need to take the precaution of boiling drinking water until Monday even though the utility was working to stop the spill and clean up the sewage on Sunday afternoon.


He said the departments involved were analyzing their response. “We had a very strong response to the sewage overflow itself. I think we did a good job of notifying the pool,” which was closed at 5pm Sunday, “but ideally we should have gotten the notice out to some of the potential well-site users that same day instead of Monday. We met the TCEQ requirements on notification, which is 24 hours, but I think, again, we should have gotten notice out on Sunday.”


One reason there was no early notice to the public, Meszaros said, is because the caller — identified only as someone at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center — said there was a small spill. Only later did utility workers discover how large it was, and by that time they were busy trying to stop the overflow.


Meszaros praised utility workers who spent much of Mother’s Day cleaning up sewage. He said dozens of AWU employees were involved in the unpleasant work, with one worker collapsing from exhaustion and dehydration. He said his workers are true environmental heroes who do work that many would not be willing to do. In addition to the overtime the utility will pay to its own employees, Meszaros said, AWU will also owe a contractor that “helps us do sewage spill containment.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Tuesday that he had not been briefed on the spill. “I would like to get more information on how long we expect Barton Springs Pool to be closed and how it’s going to affect the people who depend on the aquifer for a source of drinking water. I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.” He noted that the issue was not posted on Thursday’s Council agenda but he would be asking questions before that. The city needs to re-examine its sewer security, he said. 


The city has more than 3,000 miles of sewer and probably 60 or 70,000 manholes, Meszaros said, though he is interested in looking at additional security in sensitive areas.


Leffingwell, who came to the City Council after long service on the city’s Environmental Board, lamented, “Everything you did for the last 15 years … is kind of overcome by one serious incident like this. I know years ago we had problems like this, mainly due to vandalism along Williamson Creek in South Austin.”


Because the pool can’t be treated with chemicals like other public swimming pools, Leffingwell said, the hazards revealed by the spill “may call into question the way we use Barton Springs Pool. If it poses a hazard to human health … you’re going to have to have some kind of early warning system when you have a buildup of pathogens,” He said use of the pool after employees began the cleanup upstream indicates a lapse in communications. “Somebody didn’t connect the dots,” he said.


Officials with the Edwards Aquifer Conservation District are looking at perhaps “a half-dozen” private wells that may have been affected by the spill. Of these wells, only two — one on either side of Bowie High School — have turned up as active drinking water sources.


In an interview conducted from the field, Dr. Brian Smith told In Fact Daily that samples collected by his team from each of these wells, as well as any of the other suspect sources, will be processed by the city at the Department of Public Health Lab or by the Lower Colorado River Authority. In either case, he expects some results today.


In the meantime, he reiterated the suggestion that private well users in the path of the sewage spill continue to boil water. Still, he sees the risks of contamination as being “low.”


“Very few wells are likely to be threatened,’ he said. As for the water-using population not in the affected area, he was emphatic: “We don’t want people to think that if you’re on Edwards (Aquifer) water you’d better stop using it.”

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