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MoPac construction causing environmental anxiety

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Construction has not yet begun, but already the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Save Barton Creek Association and the citizens who filed suit against the Texas Department of Transportation and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority over the expansion and segmented building of MoPac South and State Highway 45 Southwest can point to possible damage to Barton Springs because of TxDOT’s failure to follow federal environmental regulations.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say that the environmental studies done by TxDOT failed to look at the cumulative impacts of the different segmented projects and phase one of SH 45 SW. After the lawsuit was filed, TxDOT promised federal Judge Lee Yeakel that it would not begin construction before Dec. 1, 2016.

However, TxDOT also filed a status document with the federal court detailing events that occurred when the department allowed AT&T to begin relocating utility lines last spring. According to that report, even though the agency had agreed that there would be no construction, TxDOT gave AT&T crews permission to dig trenches, which led to a cave-in.

According to the report, AT&T “completed open trench installation of 1339 feet of conduit, excavated two bore pits, and began the boring of a line crossing under MoPac” near Slaughter Lane. “Later, when the bore reamer passed through gravel, the bore hole collapsed, and AT&T excavated a pit to recover the bore reamer,” the report says.

After consultation with TxDOT’s attorney and members of its environmental staff on July 21, TxDOT concluded that the work should be stopped. However, the agency apparently did not report the events to either the federal or state environmental agency.

TxDOT told the court, “On the same day, TxDOT directed AT&T to stop the work and fill in any excavations it made. AT&T stopped its work immediately. As of July 22, 2016, AT&T had stopped work, filled in all excavations, and laid down erosion control matting and seeding.”

When AT&T filled in the excavation, it prevented environmental regulators from finding out how much damage had been done. The SOS Alliance reported on its website, “The problem here is that TCEQ’s (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) Edwards Aquifer Protection Rules require that when a void is encountered during construction over the Edwards recharge zone, that construction stop, a geologist survey the void, and an appropriate ‘void mitigation’ plan is followed in order to minimize the flow of sediment and other pollution into the aquifer. Similarly, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service protocol require that when voids are encountered qualified biologists inspect the site to evaluate potential habitat for endangered species.”

Attorney Bill Bunch, executive director of the SOS Alliance, told the Austin Monitor by email, “By directing AT&T crews to fill in the excavation, TxDOT violated (TCEQ) Edwards Aquifer protection rules as well as their statements in the MoPac Intersections Environmental Assessment that if any voids were encountered they would coordinate with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and follow TCEQ rules that require a full assessment and mitigation plan before the void is covered up.”

“They haven’t even started” construction, Bunch told the Monitor, and TxDOT is already causing damage. “If they can’t keep a big boring tool out of the aquifer,” he said, “they’re not going to keep sediment and highway pollutants out of the aquifer.”

TxDOT concluded its summation of the events by saying, “We regret the miscommunications within TxDOT’s own offices which led to the activities described herein, and wish to clarify for you that, moving forward, construction or excavation activities (of any sort) at the project site of MoPac Intersections will begin only after the scheduled start of construction, currently set for December 1, 2016.”

In his email, Bunch concluded, “TxDOT’s official ‘Finding of No Significant Impact’ for the 2.1-mile long, six-lane expansion to the south end of MoPac is simply wrong. The impacts will be severe and significant. Construction and operation of the project will harm Barton Springs, endangered species and the (Lady Bird Johnson) Wildflower Center. Combined with SH 45 SW Phase I, it will make traffic on South MoPac much worse, not better.”

The Monitor attempted to elicit a comment from TxDOT on what happened but did not receive any information beyond the document filed with the court.

Photo of Barton Springs by By USGS – USGS, Public Domain.

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