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City Still Cleaning Up Waller

Two weeks after fuel-oil leak, city still cleaning up and checking creek for injured or poisoned wildlife

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 25, 2008

The aftermath of a fuel oil spill in Waller Creek
The aftermath of a fuel oil spill in Waller Creek
Photo by Richard Whittaker

Cleanup crews have removed the worst of a leak that coated Waller Creek with 4,000 gallons of fuel oil. But two weeks later, the city is still cleaning up and checking for injured or poisoned wildlife.

On Jan. 10, a water main in the alley between the Littlefield Building and the Driskill Hotel on Sixth Street poured into an underground storage tank containing an estimated 9,000 gallons of fuel oil. About half was flushed out and went directly into the storm sewer to be dumped into the creek. Luckily, this meant the oil was contained to a relatively small area. The city immediately called San Antonio-based Eagle Construction and Environmental Services LP, Austin's rapid remediation contractors. Municipal workers deployed floating skirted booms, basically flexible floating strips, at every intersection from Sixth Street to Cesar Chavez to block oil from reaching the sensitive wetlands near Lady Bird Lake. Under city instructions, the cleanup crew used hoses to suck up the heaviest deposits, then soaked the rest up with pads and sponges. No detergents or dispersal chemicals, which can also damage ecologically sensitive environments, were used.

But the cleanup is still ongoing. Recent heavy rains flushed out some oil that had been soaked up by the porous bedrock, and an oily sheen can still be seen around the Fourth Street bridge. Stan Tindel, an environmental compliance specialist for the city, said it's fortunate a similar leak hadn't happened before. "We didn't expect for this one to turn up, but with all of the relevant construction, this is the only one that's been encountered."

Like any waterway, Waller Creek is a home for wildlife. Turtles are regularly sighted on the stretch worst affected, and the creek is also an occasional home to American coots and yellow-crowned night herons. "The turtles stayed away and out of the oil. We've checked daily, and we haven't seen any dead or distressed wildlife," Tindel said. The city plans to keep checking until at least the end of the month, however.

Part of the problem is that the tank is thought to be almost a century old, and it's still unclear to what building or business it was originally attached. Oddly enough, the spill isn't considered a regulation-enforcement problem. That's because underground fuel-oil tanks, which are commonly used to store heating oil for homes in colder parts of the country, are still exempt from federal Environmental Protection Agency and state regulations if the oil is meant for consumption on-site.

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