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Who's Responsible for the Littlefield Spill?

City and state hunting through archives to work out who will foot bill

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 28, 2008

If it were 1910, Maj. George Littlefield would be digging deep to pay to clean Jan­u­ary's oil leak out of Waller Creek. But now, in 2008, the city of Austin and the Texas Com­mission on Environmental Quality are hunting through archives to work out who will foot the bill.

On Jan. 10, a water main in the back alley between the Littlefield Building and the Driskill Hotel on Sixth Street burst and flushed through an abandoned underground storage tank. About 4,000 gallons of fuel oil were washed down to Waller Creek, where it was contained before it could contaminate Lady Bird Lake or the wetlands on its north shore. This left the city with a $220,000 cleanup bill, and staffers have been trying to work out who has to pay for it.

Staff found council minutes from 1910 permitting Littlefield to install the tank for his new building. But that doesn't necessarily mean the current owners, Austin Littlefield LP, are liable for the cleanup costs. That decision of culpability is up to TCEQ. "We turned all the records over to the state, and they'll be identifying the responsible party," said Nancy McClin­tock, assistant director for the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. There's also the question of who has to pay to fix the back alley. While the tank has been purged and filled, the alley is still closed off, with waterproof sheeting covering the filled trench. Under a 1929 law, the city has an easement on the alley, but it belongs to the building owners, and McClin­tock says all parties are eager to reopen it.

That doesn't mean everything is necessarily clean. The recent heavy rains seem to have flushed out most of any remaining traces of the leakage. But the geology of Downtown Austin – mostly absorbent limestone – could hide some surprises holding some pockets of pollution: "In an urban area, you can have a lot of aggregate," McClintock said. So far, staffers are optimistic there will be no more environmental damage.

"We're watching Waller Creek to see if there will be any long-term impact, but we've been pleasantly surprised so far," she added.

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