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Environmental Commission briefed on water pollution program

Monday, October 9, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

No one, even commissioners, understands the ins and outs of every single city program. At its Sept. 20 meeting, the Environmental Commission took an opportunity to learn more about the Watershed Protection Department’s Spills and Complaints Response Program.

Following the city-sanctioned cleanup of the Red Bluff area of East Austin, the commission remained unclear about the functions of the Spills and Complaints Response Program and called in staff to present a general overview.

Thain Maurer, an environmental compliance specialist for the Watershed Protection Department, explained that the department’s function is fairly simple. “The SCRP prevents and reduces water pollution,” he said.

Working in conjunction with the Austin Fire Department and Austin Water Utility, the program has someone on call 24/7 in case specialty assistance in pollutant removal is required. As the department deals with public health and safety concerns, “all of us are hazmat technicians,” said Maurer. “We have the same level of training as firefighters.” The only difference is that the spills and complaints program is particularly concerned with spills that travel into Central Texas waterways.

With a jurisdiction that extends throughout the city of Austin and an average of 1,386 investigations per year, which results in an average of 2.6 million gallons of pollutants removed from the ecosystem, the 11-person Spills and Complaints Response team requires cooperation from other city departments to ensure that it can respond to incidents in a timely fashion.

Incidents generally occur in one of 10 different categories: sewage, petroleum products, sediment, trash, wastewater, chemicals, food grease, paint, yard waste, and soaps and detergents.

However, although the list seems short, Maurer assured the commission that it was exhaustive. “So those are the primary things we deal with, which is pretty much everything,” he said.

According to Maurer, most spills occur around transportation corridors, older neighborhoods and areas with high populations. “We have areas that we know are problems and we try to spend time in those areas when we have nothing else going on,” he explained.

Commissioner Brian Smith said, “It sounds like being more proactive would help to eliminate problems from the beginning.”

While not all spills can be prevented – accidents do happen – the program does work hand in hand with the Development Services Department to help prevent complaint-based occurrences. Often this involves checking outfalls during dry periods, regularly sampling water in waterways, and inspecting facilities like chemical plants and gas stations for compliance.

Cleanup is not the only thing that the program must worry about. Disposal of hazardous waste is another critical component of the job and is subject to federal regulations, which are specific about how each type of waste must be discarded. However, according to Maurer, “Texas is considerably stronger in their water code than the federal Clean Water Act.”

This dedication to maintaining clean waterways, plus a recent Environmental Protection Agency order for the city to upgrade the wastewater tracking and reporting systems, has resulted in wastewater pollutant issues decreasing over the last five years. That’s a trend that the program hopes to continue.

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