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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Thursday, May 13, 2010 by Jo Clifton
Sewer line vandals may have tried to do more damage; reward offered
The criminals who caused a huge sewage spill over the Edwards Aquifer near Circle C this weekend may have had even bigger plans. In addition to prying off a manhole cover and stuffing enough debris into the 15-inch line to block flow in the sewer line, it appears that someone also took off at least one other manhole cover — possibly as many as three — according to officials at the Austin Water Utility.
Barbara Wilde, a utility supervisor who worked on the spill on Sunday, told In Fact Daily that three nearby manhole covers “were unbolted, concrete was broken, and one was shoved halfway off.” Her crew repaired the damage, put in new manhole covers, and added a layer of extra security in the form of a tar-like substance to keep out would-be vandals.
In Fact Daily learned of the development as part of a tour of the site offered by AWU to local media. There, AWU Director Greg Meszaros kicked off the activity with a statement that included confirmation that there would be a $5,000 reward (see In Fact Daily, May 11, 2010) offered for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator or perpetrators.
According to Austin Police Detective Adam Masters, Crime Stoppers would add another $1,000 reward to that already being offered by AWU.
Meszaros said, “(This) not only cost tens of thousands of dollars to clean up, but (it) endangered public health by polluting the aquifer,” he said. “Any information may be useful to us … somebody out there knows something about this, and we’re just imploring them to come forward and give information.”
Masters said those responsible could be guilty of criminal mischief, a second or third degree felony, depending on the final cost.
Masters was unwilling to rule out any version of events, including the possibility that pranksters were responsible. However, speculation at the scene seemed to point toward a more organized effort — something that would have taken planning, a larger vehicle, and a large (and able) enough crew to force out-sized debris into the line.
“The bolts (on the manhole covers) are sizeable bolts,” Masters said. “You would have to have specialized tools to get into it … Someone thought it out. You can’t just walk up to it and pick it up.”
He also acknowledged that officials had been able to retrieve some physical evidence from the scene, though because the case is ongoing, he couldn’t specify what that was.
Asked to confirm the extra damage, AWU Security Manager Ricky Hinkle said he was certain that one manhole cover had been left open in addition to the one filled with rocks and other debris. Hinkle, a retired police officer, said the utility lowered a camera into the line to see what other damage might have been done. The camera showed conclusively that one other had been removed, but he was not sure about the others, “I can’t say when it happened, but the timing is awful suspicious,” Hinkle said.
AWU spokesman Kevin Buchman said the city is still working on tests from wells and from Barton Springs to determine if there is contamination.
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