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Scaling back access shaft for WTP 4 may not pacify neighbors

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 by Michael Kanin

An engineer working on the Jollyville Main project for Water Treatment Plant 4 has told a subcommittee of the city’s Environmental Board that plans for a proposed access shaft to an underground tunnel could be scaled down. However, that may not be enough to satisfy residents along Spicewood Springs Road, who oppose the project‘s location in their neighborhood.


Engineers and geologists from the City of Austin and WTP4 consultant Black and Veach met with a subcommittee of the Environmental Board Thursday to update the panel on the progress of the Jollyville Main project. Also in attendance were two representatives of the Spicewood Springs neighborhood.


During a presentation, Black and Veatch engineer (and former Environmental Board chair) David Anderson told the panel that they are considering a less intrusive version of the access shaft that is planned for the residential area. 


Current Environmental Board chair Mary Gay Maxwell reserved the bulk of the meeting for the scientific review. Project opponents Sharon Blythe and Jill Rowe were, however, allotted the standard three minutes of speaking time during a meeting-closing version of citizens’ communications. Blythe used a small portion of her remarks to reject Anderson’s scaled-down shaft proposal.


Anderson said that, in response to neighborhood concerns over the Spicewood Springs shaft site, the city had asked Black and Veatch to rethink the potential facility’s role in the transmission main project. (See In Fact Daily, May 18, 2010) In response, Anderson told the board that the firm was considering using a smaller version of the site that would see only leavings from the shaft itself and a tunnel-boring machine come out of it.


This version of the plan would dramatically cut the intensity of work conducted in the neighborhood. This was not enough for Blythe. “The neighborhood…would not accept that proposal,” she said.


Neighbor Desmond D’Souza agreed. “The short answer is: no,” he told In Fact Daily in an email.


Here, he also laid out his path to a solution. “AWU must complete all the work and analysis it needs to do, provide us with a full description of what they have done, and we need to carefully study it to see how much of it we find credible and good-faith, and how completely all alternatives have been developed and how fully all concerns have been addressed,” he wrote. “AWU has totally failed in this to date, and they have lost much of their credibility. The Mayor and City Council appear to believe anything and everything AWU has told them to date, including clear cases of misinformation, which will undermine our trust in the Mayor and Council.”


Black and Veach’s Anderson has a long history with the Water Treatment Plant 4 project. In his capacity as chair of the Environmental Board, he played a key role in the relocation of the plant site from an environmentally sensitive site at the headwaters of Bull Creek. The current favored route for the Jollyville main also includes a section of tunnel that would be buried underneath that preserve.


The environmental portion of the discussion centered around questions about the geology of the area around the proposed water line and the effect that construction might have on rare wildlife, specifically the Jollyville Plateau Salamander.


Maxwell questioned city geologist Scott Hiers over whether enough had been done to search out possible sources of groundwater along the main’s route. “One of the rationales for thinking that it’s going to be safe to tunnel in the Glen Rose (formation) under Bull Creek is that they encountered very little water…when they did the cross-town tunnel here 15 years ago on 35th Street,” she said.


“They’re claiming that’s in the same part of the Glen Rose. I want to see that because to me that’s crucial—to find out if there’s water down there because that’s what’s going to cause a problem when you start to tunnel.”


Chuck Lesniak, a manager for Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, told Maxwell that “the concern (she expressed) is the exact same concern we have.” His colleagues—first, Faruk Oksuz of Black and Veatch, and then Anderson—then proceeded to assure Maxwell that the tunnel would be safely deep in the earth.


Anderson then noted that the rock his team had observed featured the same sort of water carrying capacity as “(something) you would use in a clay liner…in the bottom of a holding pond so that water doesn’t seep through.” He assured Maxwell that there was still more scientific work to be done.


“Let’s make sure that we have the best understanding that we can,” said Anderson. “Maybe the data point from the 35th Street tunnel is valid, maybe it’s not. But at least it’s another…data point.”


To date, Black and Veatch has taken 27 sample earth borings in the area. Four more are scheduled.


For his part, Lesniak told the committee that the city had started to discuss what sort of measures could be taken to ensure a safe separation between the tunnel and any groundwater that may get missed in a study. “It’s just not physically possible to put a boring every 10 feet along this route and so there are gaps in the knowledge,” he said.


He told the board that his team was looking into methods other than just depth that they could work into the tunnel’s design that would “ensure that we don’t have a significant amount of water coming (in).” Though he wasn’t ready to discuss specifics, he said that they could have more details in about a month. 


As for the tunnel’s biological impact, Lesniak said that he and a team of scientists had walked a sizeable portion of the potential Spicewood Springs shaft site and some adjacent natural areas. He said that the city’s “salamander biologist” found “degraded but potential (salamander) habitat.”


“We didn’t find any salamanders but we didn’t do what I would call an exhaustive survey,” he said. “But what (the biologist) told me was that he would consider this marginal at best for salamander habitat.” The Save Our Springs Alliance and Environment Texas have filed suit in federal court claiming that the city and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are violating a federal law by proceeding with the plant before environmental studies are finished. One of the species the groups fear the plant might harm is the Jollyville plateau salamander.

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