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Environmental study keeps debate over WTP4 project alive

Friday, October 28, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Although plant opponents may not stop fighting until workmen finish construction of the plant, a report from University of Texas Professor Phillip Bennett that made its way through various levels of Austin city government last week could represent the last chance those opponents had to stop Austin’s Water Treatment Plant 4 project. The City Council reacted rather mildly to the report—by asking for more environmental testing—and some members of the Environmental Board used its appearance to unleash their frustration. But overall, it seems unlikely to delay the project significantly, if at all.


In his report, Bennett, a groundwater expert, questions whether city staff made accurate assumptions about the level of environmental impact that digging for the Jollyville Transmission Main and its shafts would have on the Bull Creek watershed. “The project was initiated without carrying out critical site characterization steps that would contribute to the understanding of the…hydrology of the region and potential impacts on critical groundwater dependent ecosystems,” he wrote.


Bennett presented his findings to both the Environmental Board and Council Member Bill Spelman. This came as the Council prepared to vote on a contract amendment that would authorize $7 million of tunnel and shaft construction oversight for plant contractor Black and Veatch. The Water and Wastewater Commission had deadlocked along pro- and anti-WTP 4 factions when it deliberated about the same contract amendment.


On Oct. 19, the Environmental Board spent the bulk of a four-hour meeting hearing from Bennett and city staff on the matter. Bennett suggested that the city had based its groundwater flow studies of on an incorrect evaluation of the geologic nature of the region. This, he argued, was the result of a rushed process.


“Why do we have environmental regulations and environmental criteria if expedience will always win out?” asked Bennett.


David Johns, a city hydrologist who works closely with construction and engineering staff on the project, rebutted. “There are so many uncertainties with anything with a project of this magnitude,” he said. “We have not made our decisions in a vacuum. We have collected a lot of data, we’ve interpreted that data to the best of our (ability).”


“Dr. Bennett put together a very thoughtful presentation highlighting a lot of the uncertainty of what we’re doing,” he continued.


After debate concluded, board chair Mary Gay Maxwell read a two-page letter that expressed frustration at and concern with the environmental commissioning process for the water treatment plant. In it, the board hit on several major points including what it implied was a lack of access to city scientists. It also reported concern over what it called “(i)nadequacy in the ‘adaptive management’ process that might not result in changes to the project management practices regarding environmental issues that could arise during the construction process.”


Board member Jennifer Walker attempted to attach an amendment to the letter that would have requested a delay from Council in tunnel and shaft construction, pending additional environmental tests on the Jollyville Transmission main site and its shaft locations. That failed, and the letter went forward.


The next morning, Spelman peppered utility staff with questions about their efforts to test the project. “Did Dr. Bennett suggest anything that your commissioning team and your contractors and subcontractors had not heard before?” he asked.


Watershed Protection’s Chuck Lesniak responded that his department was examining suggestions by Bennett to test the age of the groundwater in two formations around the tunnel and shafts and to perform dye tracing tests around some of the construction features. “We’re looking at the feasibility of doing the age dating and whether that is possible,” he said. “But we are going to be able to do (the) dye tracing.”


After the hearing, Lesniak told In Fact Daily that even if his team had unlimited time and funds, he still might not perform a litany of tests. “You know, this isn’t a science project,” he told In Fact Daily.


“On any kind of project, really regardless of budget and schedule, you do what you need to do. If you have more budget, more schedule you can always do more—and sometimes you do more to really go to the nth degree. (But) you don’t just ask questions to ask questions. You ask questions for a purpose.”


“You can read good science in several different ways,” added Spelman in a separate interview. “You could argue about standards until the cows come home, but you can always find an excuse for not starting something because you need a little bit more evidence.”

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